Health And Human Services Apparently Unable To Recognize Satire; Sends Bogus Legal Threat

from the because-shut-up dept

Another day, another story of someone with skin way too thin not comprehending satire and dashing off an angry legal threat. In this case, it’s worse than usual because the bogus legal threat is coming from the US government. Popehat has the full story of how some of the legal geniuses at the Department of Health and Human Services have sent a bogus cease-and-desist letter over a pair of obviously satirical posts on the site While we’ve long been skeptical of the medical profession’s desire to label all sorts of things “addictions,” that particular site takes it to extreme levels, arguing that there’s nothing that’s addictive, and all talk of addictions (including drug and alcohol addictions) are just a big scam “perpetrated by law enforcement, rehab groups and the entertainment industry.” I think that’s nuts, but they certainly have their right to say so.

They also have the right to post a satirical conversation with a so-called “addiction guru.” As Ken at Popehat points out, there’s no way to read this without realizing it’s satire:

AM: According to your research, blackouts occur not just in middle age alcoholics, but in young college students who may not have built up much tolerance for alcohol. Their drinking often ended up in unprotected sex, vandalism, and fights, of which they had no memory until cued by a friend. What was their response to their memory? Regret? Horror? Delight? Glee? A little of each?

AW: I wasn’t the author of the research. But I would say a little of each, at least based on my own experience. I suspect they remembered more than they wanted to admit. Though one time I got really drunk at a party and my friend told me that I was talking to his sister in French, and I had absolutely no recollection of that. It was surprising to me as a brain scientist because alcohol has been shown to suppress activation of the inferior frontal region (Broca’s area also known as the ‘language center’). I probably shouldn’t have been able to talk at all, let alone French, given my BAC. But what was really weird was that I don’t even know French!

Following this, AddictionMyth posted a bogus mocking satirical cease-and-desist, which pretends to be angry about the satirical interview. This too, is obvious satire. I mean, the letter includes this line:

Do you realize how psychotically insane that sounds? In my field we have a term for it: CRAY-CRAY!

Either way, this bogus cease-and-desist appears to have stirred up the attention of a lawyer at the real US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which apparently has some extra time on its hands now that’s website is kinda, sorta working. Lawyer Dale Berkley sent a cease-and-desist in which he argues both that (1) the interview is clearly not true and (2) that it might be defamatory. You can’t really have both of those things be true.

We recently became aware of two items that you posted on your website directed to two employees of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (“NIAAA”)–one which purports to be an interview with NIAAA Project Manager Dr. Aaron White, and the other a letter from NIAAA Director Dr. George Koob.

Of course Dr. White did not in fact participate in the interview and Dr. Koob did not write the letter attributed to him.

We are concerned that, especially with respect to the mock interview, the public could be deceived and misled into believing that Dr. White in fact contributed to the interview. Those items are defamatory, and expose you to potential liability.

We therefore request that you either remove the articles from your website, or provide a prominent disclaimer indicating that Dr. White and Dr. Koob did not participate in the interview or write the letter.

As noted above, by admitting it’s obviously fake, Berkley undermines his own legal argument. Ken White summarizes it nicely:

When the target of satire complains that it is defamatory, the relevant question is whether the satire can reasonably be taken as a statement of fact about its subject. Dr. Berkley, by saying that “of course” the satirical articles do not reflect the actual words of the subjects, has just proclaimed that the satire he is complaining about cannot be taken as a statement of fact.

You paid taxes for that.

White goes into a more in-depth legal analysis of just how preposterously bogus the letter from HHS is, and questions if Berkley was even remotely aware of the law before sending the letter, or if any other lawyer at HHS bothered to look it over. In the meantime, we’re wondering if HHS has any programs for helping with the tragically satire-impaired?

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Comments on “Health And Human Services Apparently Unable To Recognize Satire; Sends Bogus Legal Threat”

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Michael (profile) says:

To whom it may concern,

We apologize for the letter sent by our attorney Dale Berkley. He has recently been diagnosed with an addiction to sending out cease-and-desist letters. This addiction, which is becoming increasingly common in US lawyers, causes an uncontrollable urge to send a cease-and-desist letter whenever possible without any thought given to either the letter’s validity in general or the actual content within the letter.

It is our sincere hope that you will forgive this transgression with out apologies and our assurances that Mr. Berkley’s key to the envelope and stamp closet has been revoked.

– US Department of Health and Human Services

Anonymous Coward says:

They wouldn’t be the first to fall for a parody related to them and send a cease and desist letter.

The people who own the ‘pork the other white meat’ slogan once sent a cease and desist to a parody website for advertising Unicorn meat as ‘the other other white meat’.

The parody site posted the cease and desist letter and said “we’re not sure how to break it to these poor guys, but Unicorns don’t exist”.

Mark Noo (profile) says:

I am an alcoholic . . . retired

There are a lot of credible people telling us the disease model is severely flawed if not just plain old wrong.

Some of them say that treatment may be utterly ineffective.

I would refer you to page 135, right hand lower column of the below report. It says that there are natural recovery rates at 24.4%.

This stugy was paid for by the NIAAA. This nations leading agency for alcohol research.

I was a drunk. Things got God Awful bad. And then I stopped. I am one of those 24.4%.

Not telling the whole story when it comes to substance abuse problems keeps people out of treatment. It destroys the professions credibility. It is dishonest.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Great article, but ...

While untrue statements are in fact compatible with (and may even be necessary for) defamation, you left out the critical word: “clearly”.

“Clearly untrue” statements cannot be defamatory, because one of the components of defamation is likelihood that someone will think the defamatory statement is the truth. If it is clear that a statement is not true, then by definition, the statement cannot be defamatory.

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