Court Hands Loss To Doctor Who Sued Over Blog Posts Criticizing His Questionable Alzheimer's Treatments

from the woefully-inept-trademark-thuggery dept

Another bullshit lawsuit seeking to suppress critical speech has resulted in a loss for the plaintiff.

Last year, Dr. Edward Tobinick sued Yale physician Steven Novella over a blog post Novella had written that questioned and criticized Tobinick's off-label use of immune-suppressing drugs to treat… Alzheimer's patients. Here's a short quote from the post at the center of the lawsuit:

The claims of Tobinick, however, are not in the gray area—they are leaps and bounds ahead of the evidence. Further, the conditions he claims to treat are not clearly immune-mediated diseases. It’s one thing to use an immune-suppressing drug to treat a disease that is known to be caused by immune activity, and probably the kind of immune activity suppressed by the drug.

Tobinick, however, is claiming that a wide range of neurological conditions not known to be immune mediated are treated by a specific immunosuppressant.
Tobinick first demanded Novella take the post down. When Novella refused, Tobinick sued him and Yale University. Tobinick didn't allege defamation, as one would expect. (At least, not originally, allegations of libel were added to an amended complaint.) Instead, Tobinick claimed Novella's post was "false advertising" and actionable under trademark law.

There are very few cases where plaintiffs have been successful misusing intellectual property laws to shut down critics. This one is no exception. Back in June, the court granted Novella's anti-SLAPP motion, striking Tobinick's motions for unfair competition, trade libel and libel per se. All that was left unaddressed was Tobinick's Lanham Act claim.

Now, the court has handed a victory to Novella, granting his motion for summary judgment and ordering the case closed. The court finds no merit to Tobinick's argument that Novella's critical blog posts were "commercial speech" and therefore actionable under the Lanham Act.
[T]he Court finds that the speech at issue here—that is, the First and Second Articles, published on www.sciencebasedmedicine.org —is not commercial speech. The Articles proposed no commercial transaction, and consequently do not fall within the “core notion” of protected speech. See Bolger, 463 U.S. at 66. Furthermore, the Articles do not fall within the scope of the definition expounded in Central Hudson, “expression related solely to the economic interests of the speaker and its audience.” 447 U.S. at 561. Both articles clearly state their intent to raise public awareness about issues pertaining to Plaintiffs’ treatments.

Thus, the First and Second Articles can only potentially qualify as commercial speech under Bolger. Yet the Articles differ from the pamphlets at issue in Bolger in a number of ways. First, the Articles are not conceded to be advertisements. Second, the only products referenced in the First Article are Plaintiffs’ treatments. To the extent that the Second Article mentions Defendant Novella’s practice, it is in direct response to the instant litigation as opposed to an independent plug for that practice.
The main thrust of Tobinick's Lanham Act argument was that because Novella made money indirectly from the website, it was commercial speech. The court doesn't care for this argument either, and points out that even certain commercial speech is still protected under the First Amendment and not subject to Lanham Act claims.
The third and final factor from Bolger, whether there was an “economic motivation” for the speech, is the primary basis for Plaintiffs’ opposition to summary judgment. Essentially, Plaintiffs contend that the Articles are commercial speech because SGU Productions, a for-profit company controlled by Defendant Novella, earns money by selling advertisements on its website (skepticsguide.net), advertisements in a podcast, memberships, and goods such as t-shirts…
Thus, even if Defendant Novella directly earns money from an organization sponsoring or producing the speech, this alone would not make the speech commercial. Furthermore, the specific evidence elicited in this case regarding SGU does not point to a strong economic motivation for the speech. Although Plaintiffs argue that “[t]he flow of money to Novella . . . is significant, as [Jay] Novella testified to over $200,000 last year,” Jay Novella also testified that, despite this profit, SGU “made no profit after expenses” because “we reinvest the vast majority of the money back into the company when we have a positive cash flow.”

The Court therefore finds that Defendant Novella’s speech in the First and Second Articles does not qualify as commercial speech, such that the Articles can form the basis of a Lanham Act claim.
Once again, we see a plaintiff learning the hard (and expensive) way that speech that may harm your commercial interests isn't automatically a.) defamatory or b.) a violation of intellectual property laws. Of course, many litigants already know this. They're apparently just hoping the courts don't.

With the granting of the anti-SLAPP motion, it looks like Tobinick will be paying the costs of defending against his bogus lawsuit. But it's not as though people looking to censor critics will be any less willing to engage in Hail Mary-esque lawsuits. Many defendants simply aren't willing to put themselves through the financial and mental pain and suffering that accompanies litigation. Because of this, this string of IP law-abusing legal failures won't prevent similarly bogus attempts from being made in the future.




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