2008 01 20
Literature or Litigation?: A Threatened Lawsuit Rattles Toronto’s Small Press Community

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, (...read more...)
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 01/20
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