The founder of a radical anti-vaccine group has sued over an article that points out the dangers of vaccine rejectionism in America. But a decade-long trail of internet postings and public statements almost assures the case will fail.
Lawyers for Barbara Loe Fisher, president and co-founder of the National Vaccine Information Center – NVIC – is demanding $1 million in damages. Also named in the suit are freelance science writer Amy Wallace, and Philadelphia pediatrician Dr. Paul Offit. At issue is a quote by Offit in which he says that Fisher “lies”.
Offit’s comment was in response to Wallace’s question as to how Fisher had been able to convince people to dislike him. Offit answered “She lies about me.” The quote was shortened to “she lies” in the article but the context is clear from the few sentences that follow.
Her lawyers say their client is not a liar, and in the complaint go as far as stating:
“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.”
But anyone familiar with NVIC knows that Fisher is no slave to truth. A examination of her website’s archives reveals some whoppers. For example:
Fisher and other vaccine rejectionists state that Offit influenced the CDC to vote for his rotovirus vaccine, thus voting himself rich. But the timeline is very clear – Offit had been off of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for several years at the time of the vote. The group’s by-laws wouldn’t have allowed Offt to participate even if he was a voting member of the committee.
Fisher once wrote a blog post titled “Doctors Want to Kill Disabled Babies.”
About Gardasil, Fisher wrote “It is a vaccine that, by the summer of 2009, already caused more than 15,000 thousand reports of vaccine reactions, including more than 3,000 injuries and 48 deaths.” This is not true: there are no known deaths caused by Gardasil. Those deaths occurred after a Gardasil shot – sometimes up to six months later. Some 25 million doses of Gardasil have been administered since the summer of 2006, and the mortality rate for those who received the shots is statistically similar to those who never received the shot. If Fisher doesn’t know that, or doesn’t care, then she simply has no business pretending to be dishing out “vaccine information” to the public.
Fisher’s website charges that the DTP vaccine causes Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, when research actually shows the pertussis vaccine prevents SIDS.
Under the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which is drafted by the American Law Institute and has been influential among state courts, a plaintiff in a libel or slander suit must prove four elements to be successful:
1. First, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff.
2. Second, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant made an unprivileged publication to a third party.
3. Third, the plaintiff must prove that the publisher acted at least negligently in publishing the communication.
4. Fourth, in some cases, the plaintiff must prove special damages.
Given NVIC’s long history of misrepresenting best available science, and cheerleading for fringe anti-vaccine personalities, one has to wonder why Fisher would expose herself to the publicity that the case is sure to attract, not to mention legal discovery at the hands of Condé Nast attorneys. Peter Bowditch at Ratbags sums it up nicely:
If Ms Fisher doesn’t like being called a liar and someone who endangers the lives of children then she should stop publishing lies about vaccines. Does she really want her dubious “science” to be closely examined in court? Somehow I don’t think so.
But the suit can also be viewed as just another tactic in the anti-vaccine movement’s years-long effort to silence Offit, and to attack critical journalists and editors. Last year Generation Rescue Founder J.B. Handley spent a small fortune suing Offit for a minor mistatement in his book, Autism’s False Prophets. That case was dismissed after all parties agreed to donate $5,000 each to an autism center at UCLA, at Offit’s suggestion.
The case may well hinge on the definition of “lie”, which generally carries with it an element of intent. If Fisher’s statements are so colored by ideological zeal and disregard for the truth that she doesn’t know how mistaken she is, then she may not technically be “a liar”. But if that’s the case, then her lawyers are right – “she has no business worthy of acceptance.”
Other blogs covering Fishers’s lawsuit:
Orac at Respectful Insolence
Kim at Countering Age Of Autism
Dr. Novella at Skepticblog and here
Rainbow Of Chaos
Maggie at Sceptics’ Book of Pooh Pooh
KJ Dell’Antonia at XXFactor