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Australasian ScienceKeeping your skepticism out of court

I've written recently about legal action taken to censor scientific findings. Using the courts to silence scientific or skeptical comment is a worrying trend.

An example was the action brought against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractors' Association. His sin was to say in an article in The Guardian: "This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments". The BCA eventually withdrew, but it cost Simon a lot of money. He was lucky as he is a best-selling author and could afford the costs without being ruined, but for many of us even a brief appearance in court would make a severe dent in our savings.

What happened to Simon probably can't happen in Australia now because corporations can't sue for defamation, but I'm not about to say similar things about the Chiropractors Association of Australia. I upset them enough by an article here (November 2010) saying that subluxations don't exist and chiropractors shouldn't be treating children's ear complaints. I got a hostile reply from the CAA saying that just because nobody can see subluxations on an x-ray or detect them in any other way doesn't mean they don't exist and my comments about there being no nerves between the brain and the ears passing through the spine didn't acknowledge advances in human anatomy since the 19th century. The word "bogus" just doesn't seem adequate.

The tactic in Australia now is to claim intellectual property infringement or to sue for damage to business.

A few years ago I took on someone using a false university degree to promote books. She claimed on her Australian web site that she held the degrees MB,BS from the University of Adelaide (which she did) but on her US web site and the cover of her books she claimed "MD" from the University of South Australia (which does not have a medical school). She finally whined to my web hosting company that I was violating her trademark by mentioning her name. I didn't bother to fight this because I had won – "MD" no longer appeared on the books.

I've had two claims of trademark violation from the US. One was a pyramid scheme called "Nutrition For Life" who claimed that they owned the trademark in Australia. The trademark in Australia was actually registered to Merck for a system of dietary advice. I informed the lawyer in America of this fact and that I had notified Merck's lawyers of his claim. The only time I heard of the US outfit again was when they went broke.

The second was sent by someone pretending to be a lawyer claiming that I was violating the trademark of his name "Jack Shulman". As the Jack Shulman in question had created a web page on which he called me a Nazi and a paedophile I wasn't too concerned.

I have ended up in court twice.

In 2005 I wrote about a company that had been found by the Federal Court to be operating an illegal pyramid scheme. Their initial attacks on me consisted of continual complaints to my ISP about copyright violations. One of the claims was for material on a web site which they had categorically denied any knowledge of in the Federal Court action!

They finally dragged me into court with a complaint that I was maliciously attempting to damage their business. During the proceedings they unsuccessfully engineered a contempt of court charge against me.

The judge was clearly on my side but he had to uphold the law. All they had to do was get someone to swear that they had not done business with them because of what I had said and I could have been forced to pay damages. That would not have been the real risk, however, as even if the damages awarded had been $1 I might have been ordered to pay their legal costs which were estimated at about $250,000.

We finally settled with each side bearing its own costs, but it still cost me far more than I could afford, both in money and time. The case is still lied about on several alternative medicine sites as evidence that I was successfully sued.

My second court adventure was when the then President of the Australian Vaccination Network attempted to have an Apprehended Violence Order placed on me. This dragged on for over a year, but at the only court hearing the Magistrate was quite scathing about using the AVO system in an attempt to stop comment on the Internet. The law in NSW relating to these orders is being reviewed to prevent further abuse of this kind.

So what did I learn out of this?

I am a lot more careful now in the words I choose. I make sure that if I say something critical about someone I have the facts to back up what I say.

And I keep my lawyer's phone number on speed dial.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the October 2014 edition of Australasian Science
Australasian Science

You can see a collection of legal threats made against me at various times at Vacuous Legal Threats.

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