Barbara Loe Fisher’s lawsuit against Paul Offit dismissed

11 Mar

If you recall, last October Wired Magazine had an article: An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All. Barbara Loe Fisher of the self-named National Vaccine Information Center took issue with a section of that article and sued Dr. Paul Offit. The complaint is here.

Ms. Fisher was suing Dr. Offit, Amy Wallace (who wrote the story for Wired) and Conde Nast Publishing (who publish Wired).

For background, you can read Respectful Insolence Suppression of speech through legal intimidation, anti-vaccine edition: Barbara Loe Fisher sues Dr. Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, and Condé Nast for libel, as well as One possible reason why Barbara Loe Fisher chose to sue Paul Offit in Virginia?

Autism News Beats “Barbara Loe Fisher: “Not a person to be believed””

SkepticBlog (Steve Novella) Another Libel Suit – This Time Against Paul Offit ,

And Terra Sigillata’s Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, and Conde Nast being sued by anti-vaccinationist

The complaint centers around this section of the Wired story:

Paul Offit has a slightly nasal voice and a forceful delivery that conspire to make him sound remarkably like Hawkeye Pierce, the cantankerous doctor played by Alan Alda on the TV series M*A*S*H. As a young man, Offit was a big fan of the show (though he felt then, and does now, that Hawkeye was “much cooler than me”). Offit is quick-witted, funny, and — despite a generally mild-mannered mien — sometimes so assertive as to seem brash. “Scientists, bound only by reason, are society’s true anarchists,” he has written — and he clearly sees himself as one. “Kaflooey theories” make him crazy, especially if they catch on. Fisher, who has long been the media’s go-to interview for what some in the autism arena call “parents rights,” makes him particularly nuts, as in “You just want to scream.” The reason? “She lies,” he says flatly.

“Barbara Loe Fisher inflames people against me. And wrongly. I’m in this for the same reason she is. I care about kids. Does she think Merck is paying me to speak about vaccines? Is that the logic?” he asks, exasperated. (Merck is doing no such thing). But when it comes to mandating vaccinations, Offit says, Fisher is right about him: He is an adamant supporter.

Ms. Fisher argued:

“If defendants are correct, Plaintiff Fisher is not a person to be believed and because her stock and trade is information and opinion derived from it, she has no business worthy of acceptance and use, honesty being the foundation of every such reliance.”

The court’s decision is online.

The decision is quite clear. Ms. Fisher has no case against Dr. Offit, Amy Wallace or Conde Nast.

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 [Barbara Loe Fisher’s] views.

In my opinion, this case was an attempt to shut Dr. Offit up, restrict his right to free speech by forcing him into costly litigation. In my opinion, the key section of the Wired article was this paragraph:

[Dr. Offit], meanwhile, still rises every morning at 4 am and heads to his small, tidy study in a spare bedroom. Every morning, he spends a couple of hours working on what will be his sixth book, a history of the anti-vaccine movement. Offit gets excited when he talks about it.

I wish Dr. Offit well in his next book. I thank him for standing up for free speech. In my view, Barbara Loe Fisher and the organizations that ally with her are very dependent on the very right that Dr. Offit just defended. They have the ability to voice opinions which are in direct contradiction to established science. I would think they would cherish the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

14 Responses to “Barbara Loe Fisher’s lawsuit against Paul Offit dismissed”

  1. Joseph March 11, 2010 at 01:37 #

    I hope the judge gives Ms. Fisher a lesson on why you are not supposed to abuse the legal system with the intent of hindering someone’s participation in a debate.

  2. isles March 11, 2010 at 01:43 #

    I add my thanks, and will be first in line to buy a copy of his next book. If Dr. Offit’s “history of the anti-vaccine movement” is as fearless as his other books, it should make quite the kerfuffle!

  3. storkdok March 11, 2010 at 03:01 #

    It was totally a SLAPP suit. My favorite part of the decision is the plaintiff’s own words “causing her to appear ‘odious, infamous, and ridiculous.” She did that herself!

    My second most favorite part in the dismissal of complaint for “failure to state a claim” was about “the importance of ‘evaluating complaints early in the process’…as a way to deal with ‘the recognized problems created by ‘strike suits’ and the high cost of frivolous litigation.'”

    I will have to arm wrestle isles for the first copy of Dr. Offit’s next book!

  4. Clay March 11, 2010 at 05:23 #

    Let’s hope his “History of the Anti-Vaccination Movement” has the effect of burying it! Sure, AoA will complain, but it would be like the muffled screams coming from a 6 feet deep coffin. Someone yelling,”My son is my science!” will barely be heard.

  5. Kathleen Seidel March 11, 2010 at 18:09 #

    For me, the real kicker comes at the end, where Judge Hilton basically says, “Sure, I know you’d like to find yourself another place to strut your stuff, but no way in hell is that going to happen in my courtroom.”

    “…[I]n the context of the Wired article, the statement “she lies” lacks the probably false content that is required to support a defamation action. Not only Plaintiff’s claim of the statement’s falsity invite an open-ended inquiry into Plaintiff’s veracity, but it also threatens to ensnare the Court in the thorny and extremely contentious debate over the perceived risks of certain vaccines, their theoretical association with certain diseases or syndromes, and, at bottom, which side of this debate has ‘truth” on their side. That is hardly the sort of issue that would be subject to verification based upon a “core of objective evidence.”

    ”The same prospect of litigation over unresolved – and perhaps unresolvable – scientific arguments was among the reasons that the accusation of lying in Faltas were deemed to be nonactionable.

    ”Plaintiff may wish to defend in Court the credibility of her conclusions about the danger of vaccines, the validity of the evidence she offers in support of those theories, and the policy choices that flow from those views – as well as her own credibility for advancing those positions. These, however, are academic questions that are not the sort of thing that courts or juries resolve in the context of a defamation action…”

  6. FreeSpeaker March 11, 2010 at 22:54 #

    BLF: When you cannot win on the facts and science, sue, sue, sue.

  7. Christine March 12, 2010 at 20:11 #

    Anyone know why she filed suit as Barbara Loe Arthur rather than Barbara Loe Fisher? Just curious.

  8. Chris March 12, 2010 at 22:09 #

    Because that is name. If you look at the 990 forms for NVIC (available here: http://www.casewatch.org/990/index.shtml ), you will see that her name changed a couple of years ago. I assume it is because she married a Mr. Arthur.

  9. Chris March 12, 2010 at 22:20 #

    Looking back at the three 990s on that page, I see that before 2007 the president of NVIC is listed as “Barbara Littles.” I am assuming that is Barbara Loe Fisher.

    Reminds me of the my son’s fourth grade teacher. When I met her she had one name… then after her divorce she reverted back to her maiden name. A couple of years later she married again and changed to his name. During the years my kids were in that school she had three different names.

  10. Richard Gale October 12, 2010 at 21:28 #

    Please do your homework. Offit has been the poster child for vaccines within the pharmaceutical industrial complex and has been severely reprimanded in the past by congressional leaders for his many conflicts of interest and his manipulation of the CDC’s advisory committee that approves vaccines. It is certain that children today receive far too many vaccinations. Epidemics do not appear out of thin air, they have definite causes, and hunting for genes will not close the matter. Developmental genetics simply doesnt work that expediently, capable of increasing the autism rate from 1 in 10,000 or more to 1 in 166 in 2006 and again 1 in 91 (harvard’s last survey in Fall, 2009) in several decades. The current vaccine schedule for kids should be reduced, but I recommend Offit be the first to be dropped.

    • Sullivan October 12, 2010 at 21:51 #

      Richard Gale,

      You offer much opinion as fact.

      Please, tell me where Dr. Offit has been “severely reprimanded” by congressional leaders. There have been past congresspeople who promoted the autism-as-vaccine-injury agenda who were critical of him, but to my knowledge there is no official reprimand of Dr. Offit. I am well aware of the false arguments that Dr. Offit manipulated the advisory committee. He voted along with the rest of the committee to allow a competitor’s vaccine be added to the schedule. He abstained from voting to remove it. He wasn’t a voting member when his own vaccine was added.

      It is certain that children receive too many vaccinations? Please, provide the science that determines how many vaccines a child can have before it is “too many”.

      You are aware that one of the proposed explanations for the increase in autism prevalence is genetic, don’t you? Kind of strange how that works out. The “there can be no genetic epidemic” saying is actually false.

      Please, show that the past prevalence of autism (as defined today) was ever 1 in 10,000.

  11. Julian Frost October 13, 2010 at 06:41 #

    Mr Gale, if you are insinuating that Paul Offitt used his position to get his rotavirus vaccine accepted, you are committing libel. Those so-called conflicts of interest were noted, and appropriate measures were taken to ensure that Offitt could not unduly influence the committee.
    You mention the “autism epidemic”. Better diagnosis, more awareness and changes to the diagnostic criteria have had an influence. I subscribe to the hypothesis that autism was under-recognized and under-reported in the past. As a side note, yesterday I saw an episode of The Big-Bang Theory. Sheldon comes across as a high-functioning autistic.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Anti-vaccination Stories Shift with the Tides « Confutata - May 12, 2010

    […] Barbara Loe Fisher, who has in the past been one of the more effective anti-vax spokespeople, filed a defamation suit against Dr. Paul Offit, journalist Amy Wallace, and Wired magazine, for printing Offit’s […]

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