I’m going to step outside my usual realm of medicine today to discuss something a little outside my realm of specialty: the law. I happen to have learned a tiny bit about one particular area of the law, SLAPP lawsuits, through some rather odd circumstances.
One, I read a lot of bloggers that like to shoot off their mouths. Two, I read a couple of law blogs that talk about First Amendment issues. Oh, and three, I happen to know the guy who wrote Rep. Steve Cohen’s proposed anti-SLAPP bill, HR 4364 ::coughhicousindavidcough::, so I read up on it so I wouldn’t sound like a total doofus when I talked to him about it. (Not that he’s never seen me be a doofus before.)
By the way, I know I’ve got a few lawyers reading this. If I get anything wrong here, please correct me…I know I’m getting out of my depth 😀
So, let’s step back and discuss what a SLAPP suit is. A “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” is basically somebody suing somebody else to get them to shut up when they have no good legal grounds to shut them up. It’s a way for people to get around that pesky First Amendment freedom of speech thing.
Say, for example, that some of the anti-vaccine loons I’ve talked about found my blog (not all that likely, because I’m seriously small potatoes in the science blog world!) and were insulted by being called loons and quacks. In order to shut me up, they might file a suit claiming defamation. (I believe that Ken at Popehat refers to this as Butthurt in the First Degree.)
Now, the whole point with a SLAPP suit is that they don’t really care if they win–they just want me to shut up and stop calling them loons and pointing out that they’re promoting bad science. But once I’ve been sued, I have to start hiring a lawyer and wasting time on the issue. So, if they’re lucky, I agree to take down all my criticisms and promise to never say anything mean about them again, in order to avoid the expense and hassle.
Mind you, I doubt they’d get lucky when it comes to me, because I’d rally everybody I know—and I know a lot of people—and they’d learn firsthand about the Streisand Effect. However, it’s easy for me to say that now and it’s easy for me to say it when I’m got resources that many people don’t. (Head over here to read about a successful conclusion to a SLAPP suit against a science blogger, thanks to pro bono work.)
I’m not an expert in things like libel and slander. Heck, I’m not even an educated amateur! But I’m pretty sure the Founders didn’t intend for anybody with enough money to hire a lawyer to be able to intimidate and harass anyone who says anything mean about them.
I don’t have a problem with all suits related to speech. If I claimed, say, that a big grocery store chain was putting poison on their produce and people paid attention, causing them to lose a lot of business, I would expect a lawsuit and I would expect to lose unless I had some evidence to back up my claim. (Yeah, I know, the fact that you have evidence wouldn’t necessarily mean you win either, but that’s a separate problem, I think.)
But I will defend my right to say that the owners of a grocery store chain are a bunch of dumb poopyheads for selling homeopathic crap in their stores. I will defend my right to say that I can’t stand their store design and think everyone should shop at locally owned supermarkets that are friendlier and more locally sourced.
Another aspect of these suits is forcing anonymous bloggers to unmask. I disapprove strenuously of this unless the blogger has been making physical threats against someone. Hey, even those Founding Fathers I mentioned used to write to newspapers using a pseudonym.
Look, if you want to write on your blog or in the newspaper that I’m a giant poopyhead, you should go right ahead. I might think you’re a jerk for doing it, but I’m certainly not going to sue you. In return, I reserve the right to point and laugh at people who have no idea how science works. I have the right to be mad as hell that vaccine-preventable diseases are coming back. And I have a right to holler at the top of my lungs about anyone helping the diseases and hindering public health.
Unfortunately, SLAPP suits work. I don’t know if anyone collects statistics, but I suspect they work frequently. They stifle free speech, quell dissent, and do harm to a lot of good people trying to make their legitimate views heard. Congress needs to pass an anti-SLAPP statute to protect free speech and public self-expression.