Censorship: It’s the New Black (for Anti-science Groups)
Is it me, or does it seem like free speech and open debate don’t hold much currency among the anti-vaccination and pro-alternative-medicine crowds?
Over the past few months, I’ve read accounts of a variety of actions that certainly make it appear that way:
- Jenny McCarthy (@JennyfromMTV) blocks critics Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition (@ImmunizeCOKids) and Liz Ditz on Twitter;
- Age of Autism (@fromageofautism) brags about blocking critics Age of Ignorance (@ageofautism) and an unnamed “Oracian” on Twitter;
- Frequent banning of skeptical commenters at Age of Autism blog.
While I don’t think blocking someone on Twitter or a blog is such a big deal, I do think it’s representative of the “don’t bring me no bad news” attitude these folks often maintain.
Other examples of squelching debate are more troubling:
The “supportive-comments only” policy at on mothering.com forums results in moderators locking threads and banning users who even gently question the wisdom of things like unassisted birth or vaccine refusal. This leaves participants free to dispense medical advice (and MDC disclaimers notwithstanding, that is often what they do) that meets with the approval of MDC mods without allowing dissenting opinion free voice. This results in a dangerous echo-chamber of potentially harmful advice. In one case, it may have contributed to the preventable death of a post-dates baby, as posters continued to “support” and encourage the “mama” to keep waiting for baby to “decide when to be born” and resist induction.
From their current user agreement:
“We host discussion of nighttime parenting, loving discipline, gentle weaning, natural birth, homebirth, successful breastfeeding, alternative and complementary home remedies, informed consent and many other topics from a natural point of view. We are not interested, however, in hosting discussions on the merits of crying it out, harsh sleep training, physical punishment, formula feeding, elective cesarean section, routine infant medical circumcision, or mandatory vaccinations.”
“Do not post to invite MDC members to other communities, blogs or message boards for adversarial purposes or link to discussion about MDC at another site. Do not negatively discuss other communities or discussions elsewhere (this includes blog comments), regardless of whether or not you link to that discussion or community. This is to maintain and respect the integrity of our own and other communities.”
Autism One 2008
Autism News Beat blogger Ken Reibel was ejected from the 2008 Autism One conference (which promotes anti-vaccine views) after he asked a question during a Q & A session with Jon and Terry Poling, parents whose case in the Autism Omnibus Hearings was conceded by the government. (They had claimed that vaccines aggravated their daughter’s pre-existing mitochondrial disorder.) Representatives claimed they could not find his registration information in the computer; a claim Reibel disputes, and says was later retracted.
He was denied a credential for the 2009 conference based on organizers’ claims that he had violated an agreement not to videotape at the 2008 conference. Reibel also denies this claim:
“Arranga [one of the organizers] knows that isn’t true. None of his emails mentioned videotaping. There were no signs posted to that effect at the conference, and nothing mentioned in the literature. Besides, your typical AutismOne conference has more video cameras than gluten free cookies, and you can see some of the results here, here, and here. I made no effort to hide my camera, and the four hours of video that I shot includes subjects looking directly into the lens, obviously aware they were being filmed.”
While the kinds of attempted censorship in the above examples are distasteful and smack of intellectual dishonesty, they are not a particularly serious threat to free speech and open debate.
However several recent attempts to use the legal system to silence legitimate criticism are far more troubling:
BCA v. Simon Singh
Physicist, author and director Simon Singh became the victim of outrageously plaintiff-friendly libel laws in Britain when the British Chiropractic Association sued him for libel. Singh had had the temerity to criticize claims regarding the safety and effectiveness of chiropractic treatment for a variety of childhood ailments in an article in the U.K. Guardian.
Despite a preliminary ruling in favor of the BCA, Singh is determined to press on, because:
“I still believe that my article was reasonable, fair and important in terms of informing parents about the lack of evidence relating to chiropractic treatment for some childhood conditions. While there is still the slightest chance of defending my rights as a journalist then I am determined to continue with this legal battle. Indeed, I look forward to the opportunity to discuss the evidence for chiropractic in court.
“More importantly, while this case is alive there is an opportunity to raise a whole series of arguably more important issues, particularly the appalling state of English libel laws.”
NMT Medical v. Peter Wilmshurst
In a case of so-called “libel tourism,” a British cardiologist is being sued in British court by a U.S. company for comments made in the U.S. and published online in a U.S.-based cardiology forum.
Peter Wilmshurst was a co-principal investigator in a clinical trial of a device made by NMT Medical. In an interview with an online cardiology news service, he allegedly noted his concerns about the integrity of the research. (Wilmshurst and another investigator refused co-authorship of the study because they were not allowed access to the full data set.)
NMT Medical subsequently sued Dr. Wilmshurst for slander and libel. Wilmshurst’s defense contends that his statements were true, and made in the public interest, and that he had “a social, moral and ethical duty” to make them publicly.
(For more on the Wilmshurst case, see Healthwatch.)
Matthias Rath v. Ben Goldacre
German physician and “vitamin entrepreneur” Matthias Rath sued physician and Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre over criticism of Rath’s activities promoting his vitamin supplements as superior to drug treatments for AIDS in South Africa (which has been particularly hard-hit by the disease.)
Rath lost, and was forced to pay costs, but the year-long case not only tied Goldacre up with legal matters, but forced him to remain silent on related issues, and to remove a chapter on Rath from his 2008 book Bad Science until the case was resolved. (The chapter has been restored in the latest version, and is available for download at Amazon.)
Sykes v. Bayer
In this case, neurodiversity blogger Kathleen Seidel was subpoenaed for all her blog-related records, including financial statements, e-mails and other documents, in what appears to be an attempt to intimidate Seidel and others into silence.
Seidel was not a party to, nor involved in, the case at issue, which was a personal injury claim brought by the parents of a child they allege was made autistic by vaccines. However, Seidel had attracted the ire of the plaintiff’s attorney in the case, one Clifford Shoemaker, a lawyer specializing in vaccine-injury cases, about which Seidel had blogged in a post titled “The Commerce in Causation.”
Moreover, Shoemaker is closely associated with Mark and David Geier, developers of the infamous Lupron protocol for the treatment of autism, and about whom Ms. Seidel had written a series of critical blog posts that uncovered possibly unethical behavior by the Geiers. The Geiers have frequently served as plaintiff’s witnesses in Shoemaker’s vaccine-injury cases, and he served on a fraudulent internal review board for the Geiers’ research.
Fortunately, the court recognized Shoemaker’s subpoena for what it was, and quashed it, adding well-deserved sanctions into the bargain. (Shoemaker’s behavior was so egregious that other personal-injury attorneys agreed that sanctions were in order. ) Sykes v. Bayer was eventually dismissed.
J.B. Handley v. Paul Offit
The founder of anti-vaccination group Generation Rescue, Handley is a venture capitalist who asserts that autism is a form of mercury poisoning caused by thimerosal that was, until 2001, a common preservative in childhood vaccines, and that it can be treated with bio-medical therapies like chelation.
Mr. Handley directed the following threat to critics he believed had “infiltrated” an online anti-vaccination forum:
“Dear N.D. [neurodiversity] folks monitoring this list:
I have no respect for your ‘movement.’
“You are now spending your time actively hassling our Rescue Angels. We are spending out [sic] time constructively engaging doctors to help our babies. If you don’t like what we have to say, stop listening.
“We will bring the full resources of myself and Generation Rescue to
stop this. We will sue you for libel and we will go after your homes
and assets. My lawyers live to investigate and sue people like you.
This will be your only warning. “
I couldn’t find any specifics about the nature of the “hassling” Handley referred to, but I find it odd that he would post such a message in a public forum rather than directing it to the individual(s) in question. It is also interesting that he would specifically threaten to sue for libel.
Ironically, this very message is the subject of a lawsuit filed by Handley against Paul Offit, the author of Autism’s False Prophets, and its publisher, Columbia University Press. The suit alleges that Offit took Handley’s post out of context in order to fabricate a conversation intended to paint him in an unfavorable light.
If you follow the link, you’ll notice that the suit was filed for “false light invasion of privacy” rather than for libel (a form of defamation.)
What’s the difference?
According to Linda Holmes, J.D.:
“In most cases, the two actions overlap. A person who has a valid claim of false light will also have a valid defamation claim. But for plaintiffs, false light has three possible advantages. First, precisely because it hasn’t been developed as carefully as defamation — indeed, in many states, it doesn’t even exist — there aren’t as many rules restricting recovery. Second, it isn’t clear whether a statement that casts a person in a false light has to actually be false, whereas it’s often said that in a defamation case, truth is an absolute defense. Third, false light may have a different statute of limitations than defamation, meaning that a cause of action that might have expired when viewed as a defamation lawsuit might remain alive as false light.”
Moreover, false-light cases have been rejected by some state courts because of the chilling effect such a loosely-defined legal concept could have on free speech.
It may be that Handley’s claim against Offit has merit; I don’t know. It may also be that Handley’s attorneys advised against a libel claim in favor of the more ambiguous false-light suit—an action that may not even require the plaintiff to demonstrate that the statement(s) that form the basis of the action are false—once they saw the response from Offit and UCP’s attorneys.
UPDATE (10/28/2009): J.B. Handley has evidently settled his suit against Columbia University Press and Dr. Offit. In his post on the topic, Handley states that Offit and the publisher will correct the disputed passage in Autism’s False Prophets, will each donate “$5,000 to one of Jenny McCarthy’s favorite autism charities at UCLA.” In addition, Offit is required to write a personal apology to Handley. (The text is included in Handley’s post.)
What does all this say about anti-vaccinationists and alt-med groups?
First, that they don’t much want to hear what critics have to say. Second, that they don’t want anyone else to hear it, either.