Archives For libel laws

About three months ago, I wrote about libel laws in the UK being used to muzzle concerned skeptics whose articles incite cranks and pseudoscientists, using the case of science writer Simon Singh’s legal battle with a chiropractic group as an example. Now, it seems that something similar is starting to happen in the U.S. with rabid anti-vaccination activists. Surgeon and vocal skeptic Orac has been covering a libel suit against Dr. Paul Offit by Barbara Loe Fisher, a woman who seems to believe that anyone who advocates the use of vaccines must be on the payroll of a sinister pharmaceutical cabal. After Dr. Offit noted that she doesn’t let such things as reality or facts get in the way of her anti-medical screeds, Fisher sued him, the reporter who got him on the record and Conde Nast, the owner Wired, which ran the story with the quote. Anyone else she’d like to sue?

We should remember that cranks like Barbara Fisher and J.B. Handley tend to see themselves as geniuses and whistleblowers who discovered something terribly wrong and like the characters of a crime thriller, trying to sound the alarms while an evil corporate conspiracy tries its hardest to discredit them. So they’re basically their own action heroes. But unlike the scrappy, vulnerable rebels we usually see in cinematic parables, they have money and lawyers, and lack the good sense not to use them for a terrible encroachment on others’ free speech. And they honestly don’t care. At this point, they’ve drunk so much of their own kool-aid, they don’t ask why they receive so much criticism and the thought that they might be wrong doesn’t even enter their heads. A doctor who studies immunology and recommends an injection of those evil vaccines said they’re dishonest? Off with his head! Legally speaking of course. In the process, they don’t even notice how they’re becoming an oppressive, tyrannical movement that will sink so low as to drag you to court to intimidate you.

Since the libel laws in the U.S. actually do have a set of protections against frivolous lawsuits or using a court system to harass a critic with the intention to censor him or her, they have to jump through a few hoops to get the process underway, but it’s not impossible. And that’s exactly what anti-vaccination activists are ready to do when they can’t win debates on scientific merit. Why do you think the Age of Autism blog is censored and every skeptical comment that questions their agenda, claims or methods is removed? Listening to criticism is not a skill they possess and while the vast majority of skeptics are just fine with letting them comment on the blogs they run and debating with them in public, they’d much rather create a tranquil echo chamber that praises their efforts and tells them how great they are for fighting those who dare oppose their agenda. But in reality, when a comment or criticism is silenced not because it’s wildly random, or repetitive, or incoherent, but because it’s a critique by its nature, that’s cowardice pure and simple. I wonder, does pointing out acts of cowardice equal libel? Is an angry crank with more money than decency going to sue me for practicing my right to free speech?

These questions are exactly what those who want to silence skeptics with the threat of legal action want us to be asking. Maybe this is a hyperbole, but it seems like a form of intellectual terrorism. Question us and you’re going to be served a subpoena. We’ll drag you to court, we’ll threaten to take everything you own, we’ll get your blog shut down by threatening your host, and even if you win, you’ll have to spend a lot of money to fight us off. This is a technique of public discourse on par with driving past a house and making the throat-slitting gesture with the side of your hand as you look your intended victim in the eye. Only it’s done in an office while everyone is nicely dressed and uses legal jargon. Skeptics need to be able to question without the threat of lawsuits by angry cranks swimming in money from donations or profits from their quackery. This is a case in which we’re not just supposed to fact check and offer good science to rebut ridiculous claims. It’s a story we need to show the public, a story of wannabe whistleblowers who fancy themselves as rebels fighting corrupt organizations becoming exactly what they hate and hurting innocent people in the process.

[ illustration from a Brazilian anti-censorship ad ]

Every nation, no matter how progressive or conservative, has some form of censorship. In Germany, denying war crimes of the Nazi regime is punishable by fines or jail time. Italian media is often muzzled by the political or religious powers in charge. Australia closely monitors the content of video games and will yank offending titles off the shelves if officials think it’s in the public interest to do so. Most of these restrictions are dictated by national laws or by exerting political pressure. However, there’s another way that people are censored and it’s by the misuse of poorly designed libel laws. Using the courts to silence someone into submission is starting to become a major problem in UK and the prime example of libel law abuse is the case of Simon Singh.


The short version of the story is that an article written by Singh took issue with some chiropractors’ claims of treating illnesses and conditions with no evidence for the efficacy of their methods and asked why the BCA, or the British Chiropractic Association, allows its members to advertise treatments that were bogus as far as the science was concerned. In response, the BCA sued Singh for libel and has made pretty much every effort to cover their tracks, then justify their claims with cherry-picked data after a solid year of being shouted down by skeptical bloggers and groups in the UK, and make themselves look as desperate and malicious as they possibly could. The big problem is that libel laws in UK place the burden of proof on the defendant rather than the plaintiff which means that rather than having to prove that they were indeed defamed, the BCA could just haul Singh to court and force him to defend his words to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds sterling. And that’s exactly what they did.

Now, after over a year of fighting and having sunk £100,000 into legal fees, Singh wrote an op-ed in which he gives his British readers a dire warning. The backwards libel laws used by courts in the UK are being used by various cranks and quacks to intimidate and silence bloggers and scientists into submission. Question a big shot homeopath without the legal resources to fight his army of lawyers and lose every last penny in your bank account. Post a scathing critique on your blog and have it taken down by hosts threatened with legal action. By making it so easy to use the law to protect the wallets of pseudoscientists and quacks, the UK is allowing the people who should be subject to criticism and public scrutiny to be the bullies on the playground. Worse of all, the government might be putting people in danger. When it becomes too risky to warn the public that what they’re buying is dangerous, ineffective or just a scam, the quacks, cranks and those who profit from them will get far more victims than they would without a skeptical voice there to do the necessary reality check.

There’s still hope for Simon Singh’s case. He was recently granted the right to appeal a ruling against him and can continue the fight to preserve his reputation, though he’ll have to spend even more on trying to rebuke the BCA’s attacks. However what would really help matters is a change in UK’s bizarre libel laws to defend the freedom of speech in the media, allow skeptics to take on harmful quackery and pseudoscience without fear of malicious retribution, and make those who use intimidation and this form of indirect censorship to protect their cash flow come up with evidence or stop wasting the courts’ and the writers’ time and money. And as odd as it sounds, you could help in bringing this change around. Sense About Science, a group dedicated to keep libel laws out of scientific discussions in the UK, is looking for help in its mission. If you can help them make their case, make a donation, or offer any kind of expert assistance, do it by all means. Your contribution could make a difference for Singh and any other blogger, writer or academic who wants to inform the public about a case of bad science or potentially dangerous quackery.

[ illustration from a Brazilian anti-censorship ad ]