Group Promoting 'Religious Freedom' Around Vaccines Appears To Want To Stifle Free Expression Of Critics

from the not-a-good-look dept

As should be evident by the fact that our post from last fall about content moderation dealing with ignorant anti-vaxxers has amassed over 1700 comments (and more keep coming in), the anti-vax community seems to really like to flood the zone with bullshit, and keep talking until people debunking their nonsense are just completely worn out (and, yes, all of their nonsense has been debunked countless times). However, it appears that for all their talk of individual “freedom” sometimes they seek to silence others.

The latest example comes via a letter sent by lawyer Jay Wolman, in response to a cease-and-desist letter sent by the group CT Freedom Alliance LLC, which is a Connecticut-based group that has been actively fighting against a plan in Connecticut to remove broad religious exemptions for vaccinations. Brian Festa, the lawyer for the group (who is quoted extensively in the linked article) sent a cease-and-desist to someone, accusing them of defamation regarding CT Freedom Alliance and one of its co-founders, Dawn Jolly.

The letter from Wolman is worth reading in full. It starts out by noting that the lawyer, Brian Festa, appears not to be too familiar with defamation/1st Amendment law:

As we see your primary occupation is with the CT CHRO, our presumption is that defamation law is outside your usual practice. Allow us, then, to explain why your letter is deficient and what the most likely judicial outcome would be.

And while I would normally go through the letter in order, for this one, I think it’s worth first jumping to the conclusion of the letter, labeled as “Section 3”:

3.0 Stop This Nonsense

Your client states, on its website “[w]e pledge to never engage in censorship, groupthink or controlled messaging.” … Similarly, on November 22, 2019, your client stated on Facebook that it is “the arch nemesis of censorship and deception.” And on November 8, 2019, your client stated that it is an organization “where every voice is heard, and not one is louder than the others.” Your threat directly contradicts these statements. It is an attempt, through bullying, to censor our clients. It is an attempt to control messaging, to thwart the ability of anyone who disagrees with your client to be heard. It promotes but a single ideology, which necessitates groupthink.

In the immortal words of Master Yoda, “Stop it Now”. Bad Lip Reading, “SEAGULLS! (Stop It Now)” (Nov. 25, 2016) available at

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

More to the point, Wolman points out that Festa’s clients have no valid claim of defamation. Jolly and her organization are upset that Wolman’s (unnamed) client allegedly “disseminated false information.” But as Wolman points out, that claim is substantially true — and also suggests in the process that Jolly has since deleted the evidence:

Our clients’ statements are substantially true. For example, Ms. Jolly shared on Facebook (and has since apparently spoliated) the article [URL Removed], claiming “More effective than your damn flu shot”. We have a copy, even though it does not appear currently visible on her public Facebook page. The linked article makes no such claim. Instead it links to an article [URL Removed], where the author of the study at issue actually “insists that those at risk continue to take their flu jabs.” Thus, Ms. Jolly has disseminated inaccurate information.

Similarly, in what appears to be another spoliated post, Ms. Jolly shared on Facebook a post purporting to assert that autism is not genetic due to an absence of autistic parents and grandparents. The purported connection between vaccines and autism arise from Andrew Wakefield’s discredited 1998 publication in The Lancet, which has been retracted…. Thus, Ms. Jolly uses retracted studies to support her claims.

It goes on from there, calling out that the cease and desist letter did not make clear what statements were defamatory — which, as Ken “Popehat” White frequently says, is “the hallmark of meritless thuggery.”

We have been guessing as to what it is, exactly, that you are claiming is libelous, i.e. the supposedly false information you claim our clients disseminated. You cannot merely present lengthy statements and expect us to determine what it is that you are claiming is false.

And then, in explaining the basics of free speech and the 1st Amendment, Wolman gets to insert a Marc Randazza (whom he works with) favorite from The Big Lebowski.

In brief, there is no reasonable expectation that your claims will be met with any success. There will be no damages awarded. There will be no injunctive relief. And, your threat of a temporary restraining order plainly shows you are unfamiliar with the well-established rule that ?THE SUPREME COURT HAS ROUNDLY REJECTED PRIOR RESTRAINT!?. Kinney v. Barnes, 57 Tex. Sup. J. 1428 at n.7, (Tex. 2014) (citing SOBCHAK, W., THE BIG LEBOWSKI, 1998)).

Separately, just a few years ago, Connecticut joined many other states in adopting an anti-SLAPP law that means that Jolly and the CT Freedom Alliance would likely end up paying the other side’s legal fees should it go to court:

Second, your clients will be liable to ours under the Connecticut Anti-SLAPP statute, Conn. Gen. Stat. ? 52-196a. Dismissal will be swift. Our clients? statements were all communications in public fora on public health, a matter of public concern. And, you lack probable cause under law, as set forth above, to bring your threatened libel claim. With those elements met, the statute mandates that our clients will be awarded their costs and reasonable attorneys? fees. We would be happy to provide you with a list of cases in which we have recovered large fee awards in SLAPP suits so that you may properly advise your clients as to your proposed ill-fated adventure in litigation.

And, hey, even I get a shout out in the letter:

Should you proceed down the path of litigation and actually file suit, you should also advise your clients of their liability. First, they will have the misfortune of incurring the Streisand Effect. See Guttenberg v. Emery, 26 F. Supp. 3d 88, 95 (D.D.C. 2014) (describing ?the dilemma faced by plaintiffs in defamation cases, who often end up publicizing defamatory statements much more than if they had not filed a lawsuit.?); see also, Masnick, Michael, ?Since When is it Illegal to Just Mention a Trademark Online?? Techdirt (Jan. 5, 2005) available at (coining the term). It is unlikely your clients have suffered any injury to their reputation on account of our clients? statements. Your clients are apt to suffer far greater injury to their reputation, to the extent they might not already be libel proof, on account of their own statements and tactics should they turn to litigation and bring the frivolous suit you propose.

It’s not often that I get mentioned in a letter alongside Master Yoda and Walter Sobchak. But, it all seems to be for a good purpose — protecting the right to free speech.

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Comments on “Group Promoting 'Religious Freedom' Around Vaccines Appears To Want To Stifle Free Expression Of Critics”

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Jak Crow (profile) says:

There is no such religious exemption

Last time I checked, with the exception of the random "independent" christian churches that like to claim they have a religious exemption for vaccinations which are specious to begin with, there is literally no organized religion that forbids vaccinations.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: 'You wouldn't want to be anti-religious would you?'

I imagine it’s usually people who are already nurgle cultists claiming that vaccines are against their particular religious beliefs and banking on no politician willing to call them on it less they be accused of ‘attacking religion’, which is sadly a fairly safe bet more often than not.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: There is no such religious exemption

"…there is literally no organized religion that forbids vaccinations."

…except every time you have a group of two or more people who approach the right to prevent vaccination of their children as an Article Of Faith.

At that point you DO have organized religion.

Now personally I’d normally be all for allowing religious crackpots to condemn themselves to whatever fate awaits them over their injunction against science and factual reality. The main points of contention being that their steadfast denial of reality puts children and the rest of the citizenry in harms way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: There is no such religious exemption

Why should a person’s beliefs only be considered if those beliefs are sufficiently popular?

The bigger problem with people claiming religious exemptions is that the people being exempted are rarely the ones claiming to have such beliefs. It’s people putting their children at risk, regardless of what the children want.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: There is no such religious exemption

"Why should a person’s beliefs only be considered if those beliefs are sufficiently popular?"

That is a good question indeed. Let’s assume two sets of scenarios;

Scenario 1:

1) A couple decide they want to have a small but detailed tattoo of the Flying Spaghetti Monster added to the right buttcheek of their new-born child. Child protection services WILL involve themselves.

2) A couple decide to have the genitals of their newborn male mutilated with a circumcision. No one dares raise a single complaint.

Scenario 2:

1) A couple raises their young rugrat while steadfastly, every month, serving what they tell the youngster is the human flesh of unbelievers who failed to pay heed to Great Cthulhu. Child services are notified and WILL involve themselves.

2) A similar couple puts their child in sunday school where it is regularly told that it consumes the flesh and blood of it’s savior. No one even raises an eyebrow.

It’s pretty obvious that as soon as religion gets involved a rather hefty amount of leeway is given proportionate to the amount of people already involved with the given religion.

Which, i suppose, is why that US church of satanism keeps giving all the "good people" a headache when they insist their Baphomet statue has as much right to be in front of the courthouse as a plaque of the ten commandments.

Either you have religious freedom within limits which should be equal for everyone…or what you have is just a set of rather bigoted rules favoring the popular opinion.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: There is no such religious exemption

Why is organized religion relevant? The first amendment does not protect your right to join the well-established, government-approved church of your choice, it protects the right to believe as you choose.

If it did in fact only protect well-established religions, if Jesus Christ were born to Mary and Joseph today instead of 2000-odd years ago, Christianity (and all follow-on religions) would die in the cradle because nobody would have a right to believe in them.

That One Guy (profile) says:

'Oh no, we only like that one when it helps us you see.'

Not only raging idiots pushing a dangerous idea but liars and hypocrites as well, trying to use the first amendment when it helps them but throwing it into the dirt when someone criticizes them?

Who would have ever seen that coming(that hasn’t seen that tactic used in the plague containment thread mentioned)?

I rather hope that they do continue to be as stupid as they already are and sue, because it sounds like they are well overdue for a hefty anti-SLAPP benchslap.

ECA (profile) says:

If all the world is a stage...

Then beyond the lights all I see…is idiocy.

Would love the health stats for all those people, including this company that is representing them. And see how many have died from minor cases of small pox, german measles, and other things.
Let the Doctors do a study to compare all the rest of us, to see if there is a Equal %..and if its found would be nice to track what is happening.

David says:

Re: Re: If all the world is a stage...

The funny thing is that it’s exactly the people opposed to contraceptives and protesting about evolution getting taught in school who are handing their children over to natural selection.

God may work in less mysterious ways than they used to before the days of science, but their sense of irony appears quite more refined than in the days of Job.

Still deadly, though.

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Brian Festa, Attorney

I have a better idea – you post the result you want everybody do try and find, then explain why it’s relevant to the discussion?

Meh, but I’m up early and not much to do before I go to the office, so I tried that. The first result for me is… this very article. The second is a news story about a hearing that doesn’t seem to be particularly in favour of the guy. The third is an outdated article about the original legal challenge. What’s so interesting about this search, again?

Thats the fun part about demanding everybody else do the search work for you – they may just come up with completely different results to the ones you expected them to.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Brian Festa, Attorney

This article is about a letter from Wolman to Festa.
That is how Festa is relevant.
If someone selected particular articles about Festa, then they would be accused of cherry-picking.

If Techdirt readers are not able to scan the headings of the first 10 articles that come up on the google search and evaluate them for themselves, then why would you expect a commenter on Techdirt to do it for them?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Brian Festa, Attorney

"That is how Festa is relevant."

I know how Festa is relevant, that’s not what I asked. What specific aspect of Festa do you want people to look at? What are you asking others to find? If I want to tell you about a specific article I read today about Tesla, it would be idiotic of me to just say "search tesla" and expect you to find what I’m thinking of.

"they would be accused of cherry-picking"

Only if they link to some heavily-biased source that doesn’t say what most other sources are saying..

"If Techdirt readers are not able to scan the headings of the first 10 articles that come up on the google search and evaluate them for themselves, then why would you expect a commenter on Techdirt to do it for them?"

Because the commenter is the one wanting them to look at something specific. Why are you incapable of just linking what you’re hinting at, and stop being a dick?

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Belief vs Proof

One can believe whatever fits their agenda/control system/explanation of the cosmos as they see it.

Proving what they believe in to everyone not of their belief system is a different matter. ‘God told me’ is an easy, but un-provable explanation (how much respect is to be given is an eye of the beholder type of situation though ‘political correctness’ suggests that respect should be given, always). Even some scientific ‘proofs’ fail because at some later date something new is learned that overturns something believed to be true in the past. And we continue to discover new things every day.

In the end, proof needs more than ‘God told me’, while at the same time there is room for skepticism for some things that have already been ‘proven’.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Are you a member of an anti-circumcision committee?
I did not know such groups existed."

I think it’s pretty standard behavior to take exception to the ritual mutilation of children, without a certain need to have a "group" involved in that effort.

What is interesting is that as soon as a religious motivation involves itself, questions and criticism is suddenly absent.

John85851 (profile) says:

All vaccines are bad!

Here’s an idea: let’s go with the thinking that all vaccines are bad and they cause autism.
Now let’s suppose a traveller brings the coronavirus over from China.
Now let’s suppose we have a vaccine against it.

Would these people take the vaccine so they don’t get the coronavirus and bend their beliefs "just this once" or would they not take the vaccine to stand up for their beliefs?
Or is it a different case when they themselves could die, rather than unknown people who might die from measles, polio, and smallpox?

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Empty Stroller Memorial

Empty Stroller Memorial on the Capital Steps in Mississippi
Vax Not

Published on Mar 4, 2020

Parents in Mississippi placed their empty strollers on the Capital steps with notes stating how many days following vaccination there child died. Parents were there to support the effort to reinstate the religious exemption to vaccination that Mississippi removed several years ago.

Search – "empty stroller" vaccines


PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Empty Stroller Memorial

Did they do a similar one for the kids who died of preventable vaccines before vaccines were invented? Probably not, since there likely wouldn’t be anywhere near enough room for all those strollers, but this is like catnip to you ignorant fools who want to ensure more kids die because you’re afraid of facts.

If only science would work as well on the wilfully ignorant as emotional pleas based on misinformation…

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