Reporting On Someone Claiming An Opponent 'Lies' In A Heated Debate Is Not Libel

from the in-case-you-were-wondering dept

Reporter Amy Wallace wrote an article late last year for Wired Magazine about the extremely heated and somewhat controversial debate over child vaccinations. In the course of the article, she quotes people from both sides. At one point, when one of the main doctors who supports vaccinations discusses the woman who has become the face (and voice) of the anti-vaccination crew, he responds to some of her claims by noting “she lies.” Apparently, those two words resulted in her filing a defamation lawsuit against the doctor and the reporter, Amy Wallace. Thankfully, the court was quick to totally reject this argument (pdf):

Several Fourth Circuit cases make clear that including a remark by one of the key participants in a heated public-health debate stating that his adversary “lies” is not an actionable defamation. Indeed, both the nature of the statement — including that it was quoting an advocate with a particular scientific viewpoint and policy position — and the statement’s context — a very brief passage in a lengthy description of an ongoing, heated public health controversy — confirm that this is a protected expression of opinion.

The ruling goes on to discuss this in much more detail, pointing out that “she lies” is not the sort of statement that the court should be spending its time on, to determine its veracity. Instead, for there to be libel, there needs to be an actual statement of fact that is provable one way or the other. Looks like another lawsuit that appears to have been filed more to silence a critic than for any legitimate reason has been quickly shot down by the courts. Good for them.

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Comments on “Reporting On Someone Claiming An Opponent 'Lies' In A Heated Debate Is Not Libel”

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Rose M. Welch (profile) says:

First, the Wired article wasn’t about controversial vaccinations, or the debate about them. The article was about people who think that certain vaccinations cause autism, and how crazy they are.

Second, ‘that woman’ is not the face for anti-vaccination. Most people who don’t vaccinate want nothing to do with her, for obvious reasons. She is the face of about one-third of the people who are affected by autism. That’s not a large portion of the autism people, and the autism people are an already small segment of the anti-vaccination people.

If Wired had done their homework, they would see that the largest autism support groups, and their members, don’t believe that vaccinations have anything to do with autism, and that they support vaccinations. We just don’t get as much press time as crazy dried-up celebrities, which is very unfortunate for the majority of people that are affected by autism, who are quite sane, thank you.

Third, that article is pretty crappy. They didn’t do their homework, and they took the easiest path to selling magazines. It went from ‘This guy has proved that the MMR/autism link isn’t real.’ to ‘So you see, all vaccinations are great for all children, no matter what, and people who don’t 100% trust pharmaceutical companies are as crazy as ‘that woman’.’. That leap is bad science and bad logic.

The article pretty much said that the only objection to vaccinating is the alleged risk of autism, and that there’s no risk of autism, so everyone who doesn’t want to vaccinate, who wants to vaccinate on a slower schedule, or who wants to skip certain vaccinations is crazy, like a certain dried-up celebrity, who has fewer brain cells than she’s had plastic surgeries.

Well, proving that the MMR doesn’t cause autism (which has been done) is a long shot from proving that all vaccines are great and everyone should have them, and I think it’s crap that Wired took the low road on this.

Anyway, that’s my seventy-five cents.

The Infamous Joe (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I don’t see a problem with using the term sideways, it works for me.

What I meant was that although the linked post was about what you discussed, Mike’s post was about quoting something vague like “she lies” and the way people try to use the legal system to shut down free speech.

And look, you hijacked the thread, little miss sideways.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It was a completely biased article. I mean, with a title like “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All” – you don’t have many options on angle, now do you? Christ, she makes concerned parents sound like domestic terrorists.

Given the bias of the writer, one can only imagine that she would venture into the area of libel, and if not libel itself, then definitely editing to make one person look good and the other, well, not so much. And that is the writer’s prerogative, although it becomes much more an editorial and/or personal crusade than an unbiased piece of journalism.

It’s probably still good that the suit was dismissed, but to suggest that the writer was “just reporting facts” in an unbiased way is to not even read the headline of the article, much less the article itself.

Read the article. She makes her hero look like a reasoned saint, and his detractors like raving nut-jobs. You might have feelings of your own one way or the other, but the article was not reporting; it was an opinion piece that almost took joy in painting one side as mentally unbalanced.

Even if the main players *are* unbalanced, using these players’ words or actions to claim that the whole movement, or individuals within the movement are somehow backward, crazy, misinformed, reckless or (name your own pejorative)… is just FOX NEWS style “reporting” and I don’t personally like it or find it useful.

Rose M. Welch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Apparently, you’re unfamiliar with what I wrote.

I didn’t say anything about whether or not vaccinations are good or bad.

(Except where I stated that there isn’t a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.)

Pointing out faulty logic on one side doesn’t mean I’m all for the other side.

But that’s OK. I even tolerate nutters like you. You just have to accept that one of the consequences of free speech is more speech, especially by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.

Jamie (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: OK.

I read what you wrote, I’m aware that you are coming up just to the line between stating vaccinations are a net positive for humanity, and outright denying that they are.

I’m also aware of the free-rider notion that avoiding a miniscule risk just for me, and how that translates into problems for (as you ignored) collective action problems, herd immunity, and statistics.

As I said, feel free to be a loon, and attempt to cast doubt on established fact. I do, in fact, know whereof I speak, and there are, in fact, case studies to be analized here: you might look at what, for instance, disease control in Africa looks like. But by all means, please, go Galt and stand by your principles.

Rose M. Welch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 OK.

Umm… Who are you arguing with?

My point was that the article made statements that it failed to back-up. I didn’t say that the statements couldn’t be backed-up, just that Wired didn’t do it, and that’s crap.

So… I’m pretty sure that I’m not the loon here…

You might actually read what I wrote, but, by all means, feel free to prove who the loon is. 🙂

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