If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years promoting skepticism and science in medicine and writing critically about various forms of unscientific medical practices and outright quackery, it’s that there will always be pushback. Much, if not most, of the time, it’s just insults online. However, occasionally, the pushback enters into the realm of real life. I can remember the very first time this happened to me. It was in 2005, and a man by the name of William P. O’Neill of the Canadian Cancer Research Group sent legal threats to my Department Chairman, my Division Chief, and my Cancer Center Director. The legal threat was clearly vacuous, as Mr. O’Neill seemed upset mainly that I had praised his arch-nemesis, Australian skeptic Peter Bowditch (who even keeps a running tally of threats he receives from Mr. O’Neill under the heading The GAL Chronicles, where GAL stands for “gutless anonymous liar”). I must admit, at the time it scared the crap out of me, but the reaction of my Chairman at the time, Dr. Stephen Lowry, was classic in that he said he did not care what I did in my spare time and referred to Mr. O’Neill as a “cowardly bully.” From then on, every time Mr. O’Neill tried something similar, I simply replied that I was forwarding his e-mail to Dr. Lowry (who was amused by all this) and thanked him for his concern.
More recently, J.B. Handley wrote a rather ugly screed (one of two, actually) about me. Somehow, this screed was e-mailed to my cancer center director. Whether Mr. Handley, one of the crew at Age of Autism, or an AoA reader did it, I don’t know. However, it is typical behavior of the anti-vaccine movement. Based on this history, I’ve concluded that, if you’re going to be a skeptic you’d better be prepared for this sort of thing, and if you’re going to blog under a pseudonym you’d better expect that sooner or later someone will try very, very hard indeed to “out” you and use that against you–which is of course blogging at SBM is in a way liberating in that it removes that threat.
However, whatever obnoxiousness or attempts to harass me at my job I may on occasion have to worry about, one thing I don’t have to worry about (much) is legal threats, at least as long as I keep all my ducks in a row, so to speak. In the U.S., libel is a very difficult charge to prove. The First Amendment gives wide latitude to free speech, and that places the burden of proof on the plaintiff to show that a statement is defamatory, with libel being in essence written defamation. In general, this is what constitutes defamation in the U.S.:
In order for the person about whom a statement is made to recover for libel, the false statement must be defamatory, meaning that it actually harms the reputation of the other person, as opposed to being merely insulting or offensive.
The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must also have been published to at least one other person (other than the subject of the statement) and must be “of and concerning” the plaintiff. That is, those hearing or reading the statement must identify it specifically with the plaintiff.
The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must also be a false statement of fact. That which is name-calling, hyperbole, or, however characterized, cannot be proven true or false, cannot be the subject of a libel or slander claim.
The defamatory statement must also have been made with fault. The extent of the fault depends primarily on the status of the plaintiff. Public figures, such as government officials, celebrities, well-known individuals, and people involved in specific public controversies, are required to prove actual malice, a legal term which means the defendant knew his statement was false or recklessly disregarded the truth or falsity of his statement. In most jurisdictions, private individuals must show only that the defendant was negligent: that he failed to act with due care in the situation.
A defamation claim — at least one based upon statements about issues that are matters of public interest — will likely fail if any of these elements are not met.
As you can see, it is a high bar of evidence to overcome to prove libel. Of course, that is a two-edged sword in that it allows J.B. Handley to slime me whenever he wishes, with little I can do about it, but I am also allowed, as I see fit, to respond or not to such attacks. I can also continue to criticize anti-vaccine propagandists like Mr. Handley as I see fit. Unfortunately, for my U.K. colleagues, the same is most assuredly not true in British courts, where the rules are very much weighted against the defendant. Witness this travesty of a ruling on the libel case against Simon Singh, coauthor with Edzard Ernst of Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine (which Harriet Hall reviewed last year) by the British Chiropractic Association, as related by Jack of Kent. This ruling came about because the BCA did not like an article that Singh wrote for The Guardian entitled Beware the spinal trap.