Apr 07 2008

Another Attack on Free Speech and a Science Blogger

Kathleen Seidel runs the neurodiversity blog – a science blog dedicated to autism and related issues. She is an outspoken critic of the “mercury militia” – those who claim that autism spectrum disorder is caused by mercury and/or vaccines. Recently she has been the subject of a subpoena to present all of her financial records and communication related to her website. The subpeona was issued by Clifford Shoemaker who is the attorney for plaintiffs Rev. Lisa Sykes and Seth Sykes against Bayer and other companies based upon the claim that vaccines caused their child’s autism. The subpeona was issued within hours of Kathleen writing a blog entry critical of Shoemaker.

Read the subpeona. I can tell you as a blogger, this is meant to be intimidating and to have a chilling effect on anyone who would dare express a controversial opinion inconvenient to this attorney and the misguided cause he represents. The consensus of the legal blogosphere is that it is without merit and represents an abuse of the subpoena privilege. Kathleen has written her own motion to quash the subpoena, and her motion will likely succeed.

This incident is a disturbing milestone in the shrillness of the autism/vaccine controversy. Those arguing for a connection are evolving more and more into an almost religious cult. Last week on Larry King Live actress Jenny McCarthy, who believes her son’s autism was caused by vaccines, shouted down the scientists who were calmly trying to discuss the scientific facts. Her husband, actor Jim Carrey, chimed in to support the notion that there is a conspiracy to hide the truth from the public.

Orac, who is close to this issue as I am as a fellow science blogger who has been harshly critical of the mercury militia, wrote an inspired open letter to David Kirby and Dan Olmsted, making the point that regardless of which side of this debate one falls, there is a deeper issue at stake – first amendment freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Kathleen, like myself, Orac, those of us at Science-Based Medicine, are citizen bloggers – spending our own personal time and resources to educate the public on topics about which we are passionate. The internet has been a boon to free speech – liberating quality journalism from the gatekeepers and the realities of big markets. Any attempt to attack that free speech hurts us all.

Our founding fathers understood that the most important speech to protect is that which is unpopular. Contrary and minority opinions are important and should not be oppressed because we disagree with them. Those who do so always assume that their opinions are correct. Read this comment from Orac’s blog post by John Best – a member of the mercury militia.

Blogging reaction has not been all negative. I supported Mr Shoemaker 100%.
When Kathleen discusses the autistic children who have improved thanks to Dr Geier, then you can make a case for her rabid character assassination. Painting Dr Geier as a bad guy just doesn’t fly when she omits that important fact.
It would also help her case if she could find some patients of Dr Geier who agree with her. Relentlessly bashing Dr Geier may have the effect of persuading parents to miss a chance to cure their autistic children. I call that child abuse and that is an abuse of the first amendment.

His arrogance is greatly magnified by the fact that he is wrong and his reasoning is not valid. He is essentially saying that it is OK to oppress Kathleen’s free speech because he disagrees with her. I also have to point out that he is appealing to anecdotal evidence, and I completely share Kathleen’s opinion that the Geier’s are grossly wrong in their opinions and are engaged in substandard and unethical treatments and research.

It remains to be seen how Kirby and Olmsted will react. Will they follow the lead of John Best and defend their “side” regardless of the free speech implications? Will they respond to Orac and agree to defend free speech? Or will they sit on the sidelines, not willing to upset their constituents but not wanting to go against free speech either?

As an aside, I meant what I wrote about the need to protect the freedom to express minority opinions, even those that are incorrect (meaning, of course, that I disagree with them). But this sentiment has been much abused by the intelligent design (ID) crowd recently, and I would not be surprised if they quote me here to support their side. So I must point out where their position differs from what I am discussing. The ID crowd has chosen to frame the backlash of criticism they have received as an issue of free speech and academic freedom – but it is not. No one is trying to shut down their blog or the Discovery Institute, or is trying to silence them. The real issue is about academic quality, and the proper role of the public school system and private universities and colleges to maintain a proper academic standard of quality. Free speech does not mean that a college professor should be allowed to teach that the earth is flat, and then protest that his minority opinion is being oppressed.

As the Expelled Exposed website properly declares, ID proponents have not been expelled, they have simply flunked. The mercury militia has flunked also, and like the ID crowd they are trying their hardest to subvert the fair-game exchange of ideas and meritocracy of scientific claims with diversion, emotional appeals, and dirty tricks.

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Addendum added 4/9/08

Here is the response to Orac’s letter by David Kirby and Dan Olmsted.

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18 responses so far

18 Responses to “Another Attack on Free Speech and a Science Blogger”

  1. dennisron 07 Apr 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Great post Doctor. I have read many of the other blogs regarding this issue and it is nice to see the science community standing up for one of their own. I am not a scientist but I am a fan of science and read a lot of blogs by scientists and skeptics. The ones that I appreciate the most are the blogs, like your own, that do link to opposing opinions. It’s funny how often the otherside does not link to sites that differ in opinion. I know it is frustrating for skeptics to think that they don’t make a difference, but I can assure you that sites like yours have helped me reconnect with my brain, I like to think I am not the only one. Keep up the great work.

    On a side note, Jim Carrey and I grew up in the same part of Canada only a few kilometers from eachother at about the same time. It is a little depressing to hear his remarks on this subject. I used to think I had a quality education, leaves me wondering now.

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  3. Roy Nileson 07 Apr 2008 at 4:18 pm

    There would have to be more penalties assessed for the filing of frivolous lawsuits before you could stop people from doing so under the pretense of a belief the offending speech was out of bounds.

    It’s my guess that in this instance, the suit and subpoenas will be thrown out, but the bad guys will have cost their targets considerable pain and money, and will continue to do so if the penalties involved are minimal.

  4. azinykon 07 Apr 2008 at 5:13 pm

    John Best wrote:
    “Relentlessly bashing Dr Geier may have the effect of persuading parents to miss a chance to cure their autistic children.”

    Isn’t that the same thing that skeptics say about guys like Kevin Trudeau? That his lies may prevent people from getting help?

    Steven Novella wrote:
    “His arrogance is greatly magnified by the fact that he is wrong”

    I don’t see any other way to differentiate between Best and skeptics. If we want to shut up quacks because they hurt patients, and the mercury militia wants to shut up real doctors because they think they’re hurting patients, the only difference I see is that we’re right and they’re wrong. Is there another reason?

  5. Roy Nileson 07 Apr 2008 at 7:45 pm

    So why not organize to sponsor legislation that effectively penalizes the filing of this category of frivolous lawsuit?

    Or would this have been seen as a good idea if someone else had proposed it?

  6. Steven Novellaon 07 Apr 2008 at 8:00 pm

    This is not actually a frivolous lawsuit – it is an abuse of subpoena privilege. There already is a system in place – the judge. Some of the legal blogs point out that the judge can and should sanction the lawyer for abusing the subpoena. Kathleen may also be able to sue for harassment, but that would be more risky for her.

  7. Roy Nileson 07 Apr 2008 at 8:14 pm

    Well I must have misread something as the initial suit from which the subpoena had to have been issued would seem to have been frivolous, or was revealed as such by the nature of these subpoenas. Even if that’s not the case, it would seem legislation could still be pursued to make the costs of this type of strategy prohibitive. Court sanctions are something attorneys quickly learn to adapt to.

  8. Roy Nileson 07 Apr 2008 at 8:37 pm

    And without legislation, judges can’t arbitrarily apply penalties that would inhibit the filing of such suits directly against bloggers (as one example) that would, by the cleverness of their construction, require the expense of a response before they could be thrown out. Penalties of this general nature are already on the books in a number of jurisdictions, so the effectiveness of the concept has already been demonstrated.

  9. Steven Novellaon 07 Apr 2008 at 8:55 pm

    Yes – the original case is a lawsuit against a vaccine manufacturer. I don’t know if this if frivolous so much as misguided. The vaccine court was set up to handle this efficiently, but it is optional. There is legislation before congress to shield manufacturers from such suits out of fear that it will no longer be financially viable to make vaccines given the liability.

  10. Roy Nileson 07 Apr 2008 at 8:57 pm

    My last comment on this subject: A very successful attorney that I was working with told me with a certain amount of pride that most civil suits were in fact legal forms of extortion, but if asked publicly if that were so, he’d be the first to deny it. He also said that from an advocate’s point of view, a half-truth was not a lie. Put those concepts together and the outcome of their use can be very impressive.

  11. ellazimmon 08 Apr 2008 at 12:50 am

    And if Shoemaker is slapped down he can always claim there’s a conspiracy to suppress THE TRUTH.

  12. Steve Pageon 08 Apr 2008 at 3:22 am

    This makes me very sad. :( Sorry I can’t be more articulate, but it’s early here and I feel like everything’s already been said. Thanks for the post, Steve, and be sure to keep us informed of any new information.

  13. daedalus2uon 08 Apr 2008 at 7:26 am

    It depends how Shoemaker is slapped down. I think the Judge has a great deal of latitude in determining what (if any) sanctions to apply. My own thought is that the most effective sanction in this case would be to require public disclosure under oath of any and all financial connections between Shoemaker and those pushing the “vaccination causes autism” media blitz. If there are none, no big deal. If there are, then the pushing of the “vaccination causes autism” idea becomes understood as a conspiracy. A conspiracy to make money without regard for the welfare of the children involved by cynically exploiting their parents with fear and lies.

    The premise of Shoemaker’s subpoena was that Kathleen Seidel is a shill hired by the pharmaceutical industry and the US government to discredit the “mercury causes autism” idea. Essentially what he was asking for from Kathleen Seidel was her financial records to demonstrate that. My interpretation is that Shoemaker’s premise was pure psychological projection on his part. That because he is involved in pushing the “vaccines cause autism” idea only because he is making money at it, then all the anti-”vaccines cause autism” advocates must be in it only because they are making money too.

    Brian Deer showed that Andrew Wakefield was hired by lawyers and then came up with “evidence” connecting MMR with autism, evidence that has been shown to be fraudulent and unethically obtained.

    http://briandeer.com/wakefield-deer.htm

    Shoemaker and the Geiers are business partners. I think the financial connections between them go a long way in explaining the shoddy science verging on fraud put out by the Geiers, and the inane continued use of the Geiers as “expert” witnesses in lawsuits verging on legal malpractice.

    If there is a financial connection between Shoemaker and David Kirby going back to Kirby’s first involvement in mercury and autism, I think that would go a long way to explaining the disconnect between the actual science and his rhetoric. If he is simply a hired shill, then it all makes sense.

  14. DevilsAdvocateon 08 Apr 2008 at 10:19 am

    In lawsuits or criminal cases involving subjects in which the judge is not informed, the judge may employ independent expert opinion and input so he or she may better understand the issues before the court.

    Is the judge in the lawsuit from which the subpoena was issued against Seidel using such expert counsel, and if so, is that expert independent?

  15. [...] to this action in the blogosphere have been incredible; big names like Pharyngula, Orac, and Steven Novella have taken time to comment upon action. Liz from I Speak of Dreams is keeping a running list. I too [...]

  16. lizditzon 09 Apr 2008 at 5:12 am

    Thanks for commenting on this.

    I am one of the 100+ bloggers mentioned in item 5 of the subpoena.

    I am keeping a running list of responses to the Seidel subpoena at I Speak of Dreams. I’ve added your blog.

    Oh, and the Muslim matter? Kathleen Seidel maintains an online “Sufi Cookbook and Art Gallery”, Serving the Guest, “with essays and anecdotes on the historic and contemporary role of food, eating, meals and hospitality in Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam”. Just another layer of intimidation.

    As far as the Kirby/Olmstead matter, I am keeping a clock: How Long Until Kirby and Olmstead Speak on the Seidel Subpoena?

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