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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