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2008 01 20
Literature or Litigation?: A Threatened Lawsuit Rattles Toronto’s Small Press Community
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Members of the reading public are depressingly familiar with literary censorship. We have come almost to expect threats against books, writers, publishers, libraries and booksellers from overprotective parents' groups, religious fundamentalists and repressive states. Sometimes the taboo titles or targeted authors seem odd choices (Freedom to Read Canada reports, for example, that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale ranks 37th on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books during the 1990s). Only rarely, however, are we surprised to discover who is challenging a writer's right to self-expression.

A threatened lawsuit against a prominent Toronto poet has recently rattled the local literary community. This is shocking news all by itself. But what is most perplexing about the ongoing legal threats is that they have arisen not from disgruntled readers or an offended sect but that they have come from within the literary community itself.

The aspiring litigants, Myna Wallin and Halli Villegas, are joint coordinators of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, a twice annual event at which small and micropress authors and publishers showcase and sell their work to the general public. The Fair was created in 1987 by two small press publishers, one of whom, Stuart Ross, is the target of Wallin and Villegas' threatened claims.

Wallin and Villegas allege that Ross has engaged in a campaign of "defamation of character and interference in our professional lives." They also claim that Ross has conducted a "two-month campaign of personal and public harassment and defamation" and assert that he has done so "with clear intent to ruin our professional reputations."

This information has come to light in a singularly unusual manner: it was made public by Wallin and Villegas themselves in a mass email to the Lexiconjury discussion group. Inevitably, their email has subsequently achieved a far wider circulation by being forwarded by various members of the group to parties beyond it. Accordingly, at this point it seems fair to consider their allegations public information.

An understandable initial response -- that this is little more than a personal squabble made public, a tempest in a chamberpot -- seems undone by several salient issues. It is the presence of these issues -- which oscillate around intricately connected aspects of public accountability and the right to free expression -- that prompts the suggestion that this has become a public rather than a merely private matter.

Myna Wallin and Halli Villegas, as co-coordinators of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, hold public positions. Indeed, the Fair (via the Toronto Small Press Group) receives public support from the Toronto Arts Council and Ontario Arts Council, and is also funded by fees charged to each publisher/writer who wishes to reserve an exhibitor's table. As such, Wallin and Villegas owe a duty of accountability (both moral and legal) to their membership/exhibitors, to their funding agencies via annual reporting, and to the general public whose taxes pay for the grants they receive. In part this duty expresses itself in the form of fiscal responsibility, which in this case does not appear to be in question. Wallin and Villegas appear to have, however, failed adequately to uphold another crucial element of their public accountability, which is to receive and respond -- in good faith -- to feedback from their constituents.

The very fact (broadcast publicly by Wallin and Villegas themselves) that they have threatened litigation against one of their constituents is by itself a deeply troubling thing. It sends a message that criticism, constructive or otherwise, is something to be repressed rather than considered. It risks creating an environment of libel chill, in which constituents may become afraid to speak up for fear of being sued by those in positions of power and authority. For their part, Wallin and Villegas claim in their widely broadcast missive to the Lexiconjury list that their "legal response" was not motivated by Ross' original criticisms of the most recent Fair, but was instead the result of subsequent "postings, mass e-mails and blog entries" and a 3 January 2008 letter to the Toronto Small Press Book Fair Board. No details of these communications have been shared, nor has any substantive basis been provided to justify the public allegations of defamation of character and interference with their professional lives. And yet, in representations on the SPBF's "official" discussion forum (a Facebook group) dating back to November, the coordinators repeatedly challenged Ross' right to post criticisms of the Fair even on his own blog, claiming that he was obliged instead to discuss his concerns with them privately. Indeed, the coordinators have regularly invoked Ross' original blog post (available here) in their own representations, including in their most recent public statement, suggesting that it looms larger in their objections than they are willing to admit.

But the challenge of figuring out who said what and when is muddied by the reality that by late November or early December -- a mere two or three weeks after the Fair -- the coordinators began systematically deleting comments -- made by Ross and others -- posted to the Facebook group and began electronically 'blocking' contributors from membership. At best this is a capricious act, one that goes against the most basic principles of open communication and accountability. It makes it difficult to substantiate or refute the public allegations against Ross. More disturbingly, it makes it difficult to evaluate the character of Wallin and Villegas' own comments. I do not have a complete transcript of the comments posted to and then removed from the group (although I understand a number do exist), but several comments made by Villegas might easily be interpreted as assailing Ross' motives and contributions to the literary community, including: "your motivations were far from the pure 'I love small press' stance that you put on for your 'public'" and "I hope that you find some satisfaction in your life or work that allows you to let go of a project you started 20 years ago and move on to a better place." These are not the only arguably ad hominem remarks made publicly by the coordinators and their 'camp'. In comments posted to the Torontoist (a popular and widely read city blog), Wallin's former co-publisher David Clink described Ross as "one man who can't let go," and claimed that the controversy over the Fair is "about a man who in one breath talks about being censored when the same man, years earlier (I heard, second hand), ran a woman out of the community using bullying tactics because she referred to his work as "shtick" in a review. A man who has burned more bridges than anyone I know." Another commenter, writing under the pseudonym "sausage" assailed Ross' "inflated sense of entitlement!", wrote "I vote for Stuart Ross: Villain!", suggested Ross was merely seeking "attention" and finished off with "God he has a lot of time. Santa must have brought a big grant this year." These comments range from laughable to vicious. What they have in common is that they all attack Ross as an individual. Each of them seems far more likely to elicit objection than any of the available public comments made by Ross. It suggests that any "defamation of character" and damage to professional reputations may have been directed the other way.

Because of the severity of the allegations (further to the above, Wallin and Villegas have gone so far as to suggest in their public "response to a campaign of harassment" posted to the Lexiconjury group that Ross' comments were part of a history of "vicious attacks, particularly against women"), their implications for public accountability within the small press community, and the ramifications for the free expression of ideas by small press writers and publishers, it seems to me that remedies must be sought before full-blown litigation results.

First, it seems to me that as coordinators of the Small Press Book Fair, Wallin and Villegas' own motivations are fairly subject to at least the same scrutiny they have demanded be applied to Ross' comments and representations. In particular, it seems reasonable to ask what efforts they have made to 'de-escalate' the situation. Did they ever meet (or offer to do so, or respond positively to requests/offers for same) with Ross or anyone else to discuss concerns about the Fair? It also seems reasonable to ask what effect deleting comments and blocking contributors might have had on the quantity and quality of discussion. Perhaps above all, it seems reasonable to ask what possible ameliorative effect Wallin and Villegas' recent public allegations made about Ross to the Lexiconjury group -- and their subject refusal to address requests from multiple members for substantiation -- could possibly have with respect to the well-being of the Fair or the small press community.

Second, it also seems reasonable to ask what the Small Press Book Fair Board has done to mediate discussion and bring some positive resolution to these matters. A Board, consisting of David Chilton (identified as 'Publicity and Marketing Director'), Luciano Iacobelli (named as 'Community Outreach Coordinator'), Carolina Smart (listed as 'Volunteer Coordinator') and the coordinators, was created after the November Fair, apparently subsequent to Ross' allegedly objectionable blog post recommending that a Board be created (it seems worth pointing out that if Ross' suggestions were valuable enough to implement, perhaps they should not have been objected to so strenuously). Has the Board met generally with members of the small press community? Has it reached out to Ross? Has it sought in any way to broker a resolution, not between the individuals named here but with respect to the issues themselves?

Third, what of the small press community? Have the concerns of individuals within the community (expressed and subsequently deleted from the "official" SPBF group and more recently expressed on the Lexiconjury list) ever received fair adjudication? Is the small press community happy with the events as they have transpired and with the efforts of the current coordinators? What of the effects on future funding for the Fair? On relations between writers, publishers, and the Toronto Small Press Group? What about the public? What will be done to restore public interest and confidence in the small press Fair and the group that runs it?

And finally, what of Stuart Ross, the co-creator of the Small Press Book Fair and the target of the current legal threats? In their most recent public missive to the Lexiconjury group, Wallin and Villegas demand that Ross "stop his personal harassment, defamation of us, and interference with our friends and contacts in the literary community". In the absence of any substantiation of these very serious allegations, it is unclear how much Wallin and Villegas are demanding Ross recant, and how much control they now seek to dictate not only over his involvement in small press publishing and the Small Press Book Fair, but over his writing career -- his blog, his widely read 'Hunkamooga' column, his past and forthcoming poetry books and novel, his participation in literary events, his work as a literary editor and instructor, his collegial and personal relations -- more broadly. Given the duration and extent of Wallin and Villegas' campaign against Ross, it is unclear how much further they intend to go -- or how Ross might respond upon provocation.

Regardless of anyone's position on this controversy, it seems undeniable that threatening legal action prematurely or unreasonably, or engaging in actions that suggest an intent to silence, intimidate and bully, bodes terribly for critical comment and the free expression of ideas, and is deeply undermining to the large segment of Toronto's literary community which has been built upon the efforts of small press publishers and authors. In a city still engaged in the process of trying out its various voices, it seems to me that this kind of repression is the most surefire route to ensuring that Toronto ceases to exist in anyone's imagination.

[In the event it needs to be said, the opinions expressed here, other than quoted excerpts of others' public comments, are my own, and are based an interpretation of commentaries and allegations that have been made publicly and which for the most part remain publicly accessible.]

[Prison library image by P.J. Gallagher and used under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 01/20 at 11:24 AM

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