Anti-Vaccine Leader Tries to Sue January 10, 2010

Anti-Vaccine Leader Tries to Sue

by Jesse Galef –

Back in October, WIRED magazine had an excellent article on the anti-vaccine movement featuring Dr. Offit. Though many people call him a vaccine advocate, Offit says he sees himself as a science advocate. And the science is pretty conclusive: there is no good evidence that autism is linked to vaccines. Commenting on why anti-vaccine advocate Barbara Loe Fisher upsets him, he said “She lies.”

Fisher is now trying to sue Offit for defamation (libel). My friend Ames Grawert, JD soon to be sworn in as an attorney, co-wrote a post on the issue with PalMD at the White Coat Underground on Scienceblogs:

To many physicians and scientists, this type of claim is hard to understand. Science is a process for finding and understanding facts. People can become emotionally tied to their work but science doesn’t care, and scientists often have vigorous debates about their work. Real scientists and real doctors must have thick skins.

So when someone is so attached to their own scientific opinion that they feel a need to use the legal system to protect their beliefs, many of us are left scratching our heads. Why wouldn’t she just try to find evidence to support her beliefs? How can a court possibly have something useful to say about a scientific question? What the Hell?

It would be terrible if Fisher could use the courts to silence Dr. Offit.  Fortunately, this case shouldn’t go far, Grawert says:

If you’re thinking that the law shouldn’t work this way — that angry combatants in the battle of ideas shouldn’t be able to leverage defamation law into silencing their more strident critics — you’re right. And it doesn’t. For better or worse, the American first amendment is a vigorous creature. Where other countries would hold defendants liable for negligently false and offensive speech, American law prefers that ideas be spoken, and their value decided by informed citizens, rather than lawyers and judges.

Critically, when it comes to public figures, the first amendment protects hyperbole, and some pretty wicked satire, too (N.Y. Times v. Sullivan; Hustler Magazine v. Falwell). A statement about someone’s character and honesty — “she lies” — may be offensive. But it’s this kind of vigorous dialogue that the first amendment not only protects, but encourages. Any conclusion to the contrary would hold our capacity for public debate hostage to a few sensitive players who “can’t take the heat.”

So say we all.

I’m thankful that our approach to libel in America is different from, say, England’s – we’ve seen the problems facing Simon Singh for calling out the British Chiropractic Association. If people could use the courts to shape scientific discussion, we would be in a much worse place.

There’s a legal saying I’d like to borrow: “If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have neither on your side, pound the table.”

Fisher doesn’t have the facts on her side and she doesn’t have the law on her side. She’s just pounding on the table, trying desperately to get attention.

To be sure, I don’t accuse her of acting maliciously – she no doubt cares about the children.  But she’s being ignorant and irresponsible by not learning a basic understanding of science, and chilren are suffering because of it.

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  • Ron in Houston

    I agree with what you’re saying but there is another side to this debate. The money that can be made by companies that produce vaccines can result in many problems. The makers of the HPV vaccine have been going around the country lobbying to get it labeled as a mandatory vaccine which would mean that you’d be forced to vaccinate for that before you can put your kid into school.

    I don’t understand why my kid needs the Hepatitis B vaccine before they can be admitted to school. Not that I’m opposed to vaccinating my kid, but why is it the school business since I assume they won’t be having sex or using IV drugs at school.

    Anyway, I digress…

  • kenneth

    I’m desperately tired of these anti-vaccine people. Diseases have been eradicated and/or reduced to negligibility by vaccination. There is no science that proves them to be harmful. No homeopathic treatments are being ignored. If one of these vaccine companies found some miracle cure that exists in nature, they would license it and be hailed as heroes! It is in their best interest to find the best way to keep children healthy, both for society and for the fact that they would be immortalised and given great leeway in the future.

  • Careful, Jesse. She may sue you for this. 😉

  • Another Atheist

    you’d be forced to vaccinate for that before you can put your kid into school.

    I’m actually not aware of any states that can mandate that a child have any vaccines at all. In the last three states I have lived in, there has been a waiver process where you basically sign a form saying you don’t want your child vaccinated. The school can’t deny your unvaccinated child an education once you sign the form.

    I personally want my kids to get all their vaccines (still quite wary of the HPV though, because it is new and looks like it may still have some problems). I just wanted to point out that there is no force involved here.

  • I don’t understand why my kid needs the Hepatitis B vaccine before they can be admitted to school. Not that I’m opposed to vaccinating my kid, but why is it the school business since I assume they won’t be having sex or using IV drugs at school.

    Okay, I found this in about two seconds of googling . . .

    There are a lot of other ways a baby or toddler could get infected, since children aren’t known for their stellar sanitary habits.

  • One appropriate repsonse to Fisher (and others like her): “I withdraw and apologize for the accusation that Ms. Fisher deliberately says things she knows aren’t true. I now realize she’s a ideologically-blinded moron incapable of recognizing when she’s wrong.”

  • Jamie

    There are many campuses, state and otherwise, that ban un-vaccinated students from coming to classes if there is a deadly kind of outbreak, such as meningitis. You can have alternative methods of getting your class materials, but if you have a lab, you are SOL.

    I truly wish they didn’t have the “philosophical” exemption to vaccines. Opens the doors to all kinds of whackiness and unsafe health practices. Medical reason with doctor’s note? Fine. Scared of autism? BEHHH…

  • dkahn400

    By coincidence my 17 year old daughter is getting the 1st shot in a course of HPV vaccine tomorrow.

  • muggle

    I agree with having the vaccinations except the HPV. And perhaps the H1N1.

    It does so little that it seems fairly (fairly not entirely) pointless. Even with it, you can still get cervical cancer. It only prevents it in a small percentage of the cases that would get it and, face it, it’s only a small percentage of women that get cervical cancer to begin with.

    Also, I have to say vaccines should only be mandatory for diseases that are contagious. Cervical cancer isn’t. It’s great to have them available but there’s really no reason to force people to have them if they’re not contagious diseases.

    Here in NY, health care workers just fought off the governor forcing them to get the swine flu vaccine or lose their jobs because there were some questions concerning it’s safety. Frankly, that’s good enough for me. I wasn’t planning on getting one anyway. I don’t get any of the flu vaccinations. But if health care workers are worried about them — and we’re not talking about people here who are into woo hoo medicine or buying into false scares — that clinches it for me. Not getting one.

    Frankly, they started out well but now it does seem more like big pharma is out to force whoever they can to make big bucks. This really sucks because when you hear vaccine, it should be a thing you can rely on being good.

    I really wish the FDA would do its job and check big pharma from behaving unethically. I don’t think drugs take too long to come onto the market; I think they’re pushed through too fast with inadequate testing. Every time you turn around, there’s yet another law suit because of the unknown consequence of some drug or other. This worries me because all three of us in my family are on daily medications.

    I’m on the Tylenol Arthritis and was taking it three times a day per doctor’s orders (to avoid more dangerously addictive prescription pain killers, I’m on one other once a day and hydroco only when absolutely necessary as in I won’t be walking today without it). Tylenol had to recall and I know they will not face the consequences for not safeguarding their product. Yes, I was having some of the symptoms discussed. But I have stomache problems anyway and wrote it off to that but was wondering why my symptoms were worse lately and thinking about calling the doctor. Now, I’m taking CVS generic of the same and, freaking sniffing every bottle I open, because when I held the Tylenol to my nose, I did smell the odor.

    Our medicine, known possible side affects aside, should be safe. Be honest about the side affects. I’m lucky enough to finally have found a doctor who actually respects my tell me the risks if I don’t follow your recommendations and the risks if I do and I’ll decide which I want to risk. It should be the same way with medicine. Tell me up front what are the possible side affects and I’ll decide if I want the relief from whatever ailment enough to risk them. And God’s sake, monitor the manufacture of whatever you’re selling to the public.

    Previous doctor got annoyed with me because I wouldn’t take Vioxx for the arthritis because one of the side affects in the commercials was death. Just that one word sandwiched in the middle of the side affects hoping we wouldn’t notice it and apparently plenty of people didn’t. I said doc, I’ll let you know when I’m in so much pain, I don’t care if I die. I kind of rest my case. And, for the record, I’m not there yet.

  • Joffan

    “She lies” is accurate in this case I think, because although her statements could be the result of ignorance or misinformation from others, Fisher speaks in the role of an authority on the vaccination issue but makes false statements that would be corrected by a basic understanding of the research.

    It is the responsibility of those speaking as authorities to avoid obvious falsehoods. They should not easily be allowed to claim ignorance as a defence to the charge of lying.

    None of which is especially relevant to the actual court case, since as you say the freedom of speech issues will come up first and render moot any more subtle reasons for regarding Dr Offit’s statements as reasonable.

  • Somebody call the “whaambulance” someone can’t handle reality.

    I’ll weep for her bruised ego when she stops spreading dangerous misinformation that leads to unnecessary illness, suffering and death.

    To Muggle: the H1N1 vaccine is worth its weight in gold. Young, healthy people, are dropping like flies from the H1N1 virus. For a highly contagious, deadly illness like H1N1 I sincerely believe that vaccination should be mandatory for all those who can have it.

    I agree that HPV vaccine should be optional. It’s a woman’s (or parent’s) choice whether to get it or not.

  • muggle said:

    Also, I have to say vaccines should only be mandatory for diseases that are contagious. Cervical cancer isn’t.

    HPV is contagious, you know. I know a couple of people that have it, actually. It has led to many uncomfortable and somewhat scary testings and procedures. It is harder to spread that say chickenpox, but I’m not against everyone that can get vaccines getting them.

    You may not think it is that useful, but if you have a young daughter, you should get her vaccinated to protect her from a potential source of cancer.

    And remember, even if she doesn’t get cancer from it, she could eventually be a vector to someone else who would get cancer from it.

  • dianna

    If you want to talk about BigPharma’s exploitation of the masses, then you should devote equal time to the amount of money these anti-vax people make from the families of autistic children. There is no end to the products and services out there that “cure” autism by locating “hidden” Mercury and “detoxifying” the child’s system thereafter, with no clinical verification whatsoever.

  • Unfortunately the UK libel laws can still get involved. Fisher just has to show that people in the UK had access to this article (eg on the internet) and she can sue Dr Offit for libel in the UK. This sort of ‘libel tourism’ happens all the time:

  • @ Stephan: I agree with muggle. Gardasil should definitely be the woman’s/parents’ choice. HPV can’t be spread by a sneeze or touching a doorknob, and while I would agree that the vaccine should be administered, to require it violates one’s privacy. (I never got the Gardasil, even though I have an advancing form of HPV; I don’t trust it, and there’s no guarantee it would have worked anyway.)I also think that we should be finding a way to test for HPV in men and administering vaccines to both genders before we go about forcing all the females to get vaccinated.

    That being said, for contagious diseases that can be eradicated or nearly eradicated, vaccinations are the way to go. They save a lot of lives.

  • Everybody lies just like everybody poops. EOS.

    As for the HPV vaccine, my mom is in the gyno biz and tells me how many patients she sees daily w/ HPV (a LOT). It’s worth getting the vaccine, imo. So, you may get HPV and not cervical cancer, but do you really want to deal w/ genital warts? Ew.

    Of course, I got a tetanus shot after I barely scratched my hand on a nail (I was banging my hand on the attic ceiling trying to get that fucking squirrel off my roof! Yeah – I’m not the brightest sandwich in the fridge) so I may be more on the alarmist side.

  • muggle

    Dianna, I agree with that absolutely. Definitely, they are just as bad. And, no, I don’t buy into that scare either. I’m sorry I didn’t think to mention that alongside talking about big pharma’s power being out of hand.

    Both me and my daughter are too old for Guardasil (her just barely) but we’re really low risk for cervical cancer anyway. In any case, it isn’t casually spread and, thus, shouldn’t be mandatory.

    Go to for more information on both vaccines. There’s risks. Low but they exist. Going by CDC, not the anti-vaccine nuts.

    I’m not against vaccines, especially for the diseases that have been and are being eradicated through them. I just don’t think we need to jump on board with them before they’re sufficiently tested. And I don’t think they should be mandatory unless they’ve been thoroughly tested and are for something highly contagious.

    I risk death from the swine flu if I get it and I risk death from the vaccine. Six of one and half dozen of the other if you ask me. No, not willing to inject one risk into my body. My choice. You choose for yourself.

  • Vene

    Haha, muggle, no. You don’t get a choice when your actions can influence my health. And vaccines rely so heavily on herd immunity that the whole of the population needs to share the risk in order to receive the rewards of the benefits. If you don’t get a vaccine, you are essentially telling people that they should take the risk of the vaccine, but give you the benefits of herd immunity at no cost.

    And HPV is contagious, that you say it’s not casually spread (without cite of any sort to back up your claim) is simply moving the goalposts of your argument. You were wrong, and a core argument of your position is wrong. As such, it needs to be reevaluated.

    Not to mention what you mentioned about the H1N1 vaccine. The risk is not the same from the vaccine as it is from the virus. The point of it is that the vaccine is safer than the virus, therefore worthwhile. It’s not “[s]ix of one and half dozen of the other” It’s more like ‘six of one and one of the other.’

    And I do go to the CDC for information (as well as medical and scientific journals), and they say that the H1N1 vaccine is one of the safer vaccines around ( The H1N1 strain of the flu, however, is one of the more dangerous strains around. Not to mention that the CDC does recommend the vaccine for high risk groups ( so using them as a source to claim that the vaccine is as dangerous as the flu is disingenuous at best.

  • dianna

    Hi muggle – let’s start by comparing the risk of an adverse event from a vax to that of some of my favorites, getting seriously hurt in a car accident; or getting food poisoning at a restaurant, or getting your house robbed: I’d get any vax before I’d do any thing that could get me hurt, but I also drive my car, eat at restaurants, and live in my house all the time, even though these activities are far more dangerous than vaxing. Risk is everywhere.
    And this vax was as thoroughly tested as any other.

  • dianna

    Oh and please disregard all the typos – I was really distracted when I composed that!

  • GullWatcher

    Muggle said

    I risk death from the swine flu if I get it and I risk death from the vaccine. Six of one and half dozen of the other if you ask me.

    Number of deaths from H1N1 flu in 2009: 7000+
    Number of deaths from H1N1 vaccine in 2009: Zero

    That doesn’t look like “six of one and half a dozen of another” to me. That looks like an excellent case for getting vaccinated, if not for yourself then for those you put at risk by neglecting to get it.

  • muggle

    Not according to the CDC GullWatcher. See link below.

    I did not say that I was against vaccines but that I’m against knee jerk assumptions that they’re automatically good. The H1N1 just hasn’t been fully tested to my satisfaction yet and the fact that medical personnel are concerned enough about its safety to protest vehemently to the point where the governor relents on making it mandatory for them gives me too much pause to risk it, frankly. I mean these were health care workers, not the nutters against all vaccines.

    HaHa, vene. So far I do. Also from the CDC site: ? Among the 440 reports of serious health events, there were 32 reports of death. As I said, low risk but it’s there.

    Also, vene, while you were browsing around the CDC cite, didn’t you also look at the pages on HPV while you were there since it’s being discussed. Um, do so. It’s spread through sexual intercourse, not casual contact. You can’t catch it like you do the measles, for Pete’s sake. Of course, maybe you have one hell of a lot more casual sex than I do. Still ain’t the same thing as casual contact.

    I got vacinnated for the flu once years ago and got sick from the vacinne. I haven’t done it again and don’t plan to. But I do believe in tried and true vaccines against things like polio, measles and mumps, etc.

    Silly me, I thought it was okay to question science.

  • GullWatcher

    Actually, Muggle, I did get my info from the CDC page. Those 32 reports of death were just that: reports, not yet confirmed. I suspect it will turn out to be just like the autism thing – someone gets vaccinated, something bad happens to them shortly after, and the vaccine is blamed, with no further evidence than the fact that they were close together in time. It may turn out that someone died from it, but that still isn’t proven.

    However, for the sake of argument, I’ll give you the 32 unproven deaths.

    Number of deaths from H1N1 flu in 2009: 7000+
    Number of deaths from H1N1 vaccine in 2009: possibly as many as 32

    Those odds still seem heavily weighted in favor of the vaccine to me.

    As for taking the word of some New York healthcare workers that it’s unsafe, I don’t really understand why. You said that “we’re not talking about people here who are into woo hoo medicine or buying into false scares”, but that’s not really true. The vague phrase ‘health care workers’ actually does include a lot of people seriously into new age and woo woo – massage therapists, chiropractors, etc., and sadly, that includes an unfortunate number of nurses. And being human, they can panic and over-react like anyone else. I was actually very disappointed to see this group of people who are, in theory, dedicated to healing, put a very small possible risk to their own health ahead of the health and possibly the lives of their patients.

  • Another Atheist

    Number of deaths from H1N1 flu in 2009: 7000+
    Number of deaths from H1N1 vaccine in 2009: possibly as many as 32

    Those odds still seem heavily weighted in favor of the vaccine to me.

    I just want to point out that your argument here is not sound. For instance, if only 32 people got the vaccine and all 32 people died, we would still consider the vaccine less safe than the swine flu, even though 32 is a smaller number than 7000, yes?

    To make this argument, you need to show that:
    # died from swine flu/# had swine flu >> # died from vaccine/# had vaccine.

    Add to that massive recalls of swine flue vaccine in a couple of other countries, the rushed production schedule, and the questionable efficacy of flu vaccine in the first place, and I don’t think it is unreasonable excercise a little skepticism.

  • dianna

    Hey AA – somewhere on the order of 90 million vaxes were administered, according to the CDC link provided in a pp. So, 32 possible deaths divided into 90 million makes it a negligible risk.
    No one can know how many people were exposed to the virus, so one can’t really compare the risk of exposure to the risk of the vax.
    One can only determine that the risk of harm from the vax is, and take your chances …

  • Amy

    I understand how vaccination works. I’ve had my shots. I don’t doubt that in the past they did more good than harm.

    Still, in the past, if a shot resulted in serious complications, you had rights against the company that made it. Now, they have blanket immunity (no pun intended) from any civil liability that might arise from complications from untested vaccinations. Do you want to submit to injection of unproven vaccination products knowing you have absolutely no rights or recourse if they do inflict horrible side effects on you?

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