Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Dismissing Vaccination Denialism

As I predicted, the defamation suit by the doyen of the anti-vaccination movement, Barbara Loe Fisher (aka Barbara Loe Arthur), against Dr. Paul Offit, reporter Amy Wallace, and Wired Magazine, over the article "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All," has been dismissed, via what is known as a motion to dismiss in lieu of answer, on the grounds that it did not state a cause of action.

The court ruled, as I expected:

In this case, the article's quotation of Defendant Offit's comment that Plaintiff "lies" cannot reasonably be understood to suggest, as the Complaint alleges, that Plaintiff is "a person lacking honesty and integrity . . . [who should be] shunned or excluded by those who seek information and opinion upon which to rely." Rather, the context of the remark – in a lengthy article describing an emotional and highly charged debate about an important public issue over which Defendant Offit and Plaintiff have diametrically opposed views – plainly signals to readers that plainly signals to readers that they should expect emphatic language on both sides and should accordingly understand that the magazine is merely reporting Defendant Offit's personal opinion of Ms. Arthur's views.
The court also noted that the law gives special scrutiny to libel cases involving important public debates because of their potential to chill speech and derail serious discussions on civic issues. Of course, that was what Fisher wanted, since she doesn't have the facts to actually engage in a real debate on public health policy.

While one might wish to excuse such language for the sake of free speech, it seems twisted to me to suggest that saying someone lies does not mean ther person lacks integrity and honesty and is not to be relied on. When I say someone is lying I'm generally (allowing for my own human frailty) meaning exactly that. When creationists are described as lying in their war on evolution, I'm pretty sure nobody is suggesting anything other than that they are lacking in honesty and integrity and are not to be relied upon for information.

The result may be good, but the court's method is perverse.
The rationale goes something like this: in the heat of the moment of an emotional debate (which we want to encourage ... debates often get more heated as their importance increases) these kind of charges are likely to fly. But everybody knows that and, so, takes it, with a grain of salt, as the speaker's opinion. We know it's Offit's opinion that she's lying and, therefore (as the theory goes), that he's not stating a "fact." Since the free expression of opinion is what we want to encourage, we accept that (especially in the rough-and-tumble of debate over public policy) it is better to avoid the risk of shutting off the debate by allowing some hurt feelings. The risks of going the other way are exemplified in the Simon Singh case in the UK. All-in-all, I prefer our system.
If you're not already aware of it, might I recommend the Jack of Kent blog for coverage of the British campaign to reform libel law and the Simon Singh case. He just posted the complete transcript of a recent Court of Appeal hearing in the Singh case.
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