Legal Chill and Other Threats

June 6, 2008 at 8:37 pm (Alternative Medicine, Anti-Vaccination, Bad Science, Bloggers, Briffa, Homeopathy, Legal Chill, Nutritionism, Patrick Holford) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve recently witnessed some examples of slightly threatening behaviour on the internets and I was reminded of a few of the previous spats I’ve seen covered on the various blogs I read. There have been lawyer’s letters, accusations both of libel and of copyright breach, and comments posted or letters sent by angry nutritionists (in the main – there has been the odd homeopath too).

John Briffa responded to a comment on a recent blog post by informing the poster that he (Briffa) checked up on IP details of commentors and then asked if the commentor would name themself on Briffa’s blog. This was the first time I noticed Briffa doing this sort of thing, but it wouldn’t be the last. In a later comment on the thread he asked about my background and in another he congratulated Anthony and Andrew for using their real names and said “I’d like to see a bit more of that here and elsewhere”. He almost seems to be more interested in who people are than in what they have to say. Perhaps that is because it is easier to threaten someone when you know their identity. Here, Briffa is calling a comment someone posted on my blog ‘defamatory’ and pointing out that, despite the fact the commentor is posting anonymously, they may be identified if they are a libellous poster. In his first comment on my blog post he had something to say about my anonymity and in his second, he complained of his reputation being besmirched by another commentor. The poster whose comment was deemed defamatory by Briffa later posted an indication of the evidence they possessed showing Briffa had indeed deleted comments. He must have known his threatening talk of libel was baseless, but it didn’t stop him making the threats. Similar tactics have been used by several others in the field of Alternative Medicine. I once had a visit from a homeopath who threatened to sue me for copyright breach.

The Society of Homeopaths sent the Quackometer’s hosting company Netcetera a complaint via their legal representatives and the page was taken down. Then mirrored by lots of other sites. The incident was covered by a huge number of blogs, but I think PJ had the best title. The post also included this quote:

The alternative medicine crowd are remarkably keen using the “chilling effect” of legal threats based on overly broad interpretations of libel law to get their way (cf. Prof. Colquhoun’s trouble), probably because they know they can’t win the argument based on the evidence, and because they are essentially just another business sector, albeit one without any regulation.

Ann Walker was able to have David Colquhoun’s blog* removed from the UCL server temporarily after he blogged about red clover and used the word gobbledygook to describe the term ‘blood-cleanser’. The story of DC’s excommunication was carried on the Bad Science blog under the headline “The Mighty David Colquhoun”.

The Quackometer, again, ran into trouble with legal threats when a Doctor working in the field of Alternative Medicine sent a lawyer’s letter to the hosting company and the Quackometer blog was taken down, which led the Quackometer blog to move to a decent hosting company, Positive Internet. This story was covered on The Register. And elsewhere.

DC’s Improbable Science* received more threats from media nutritionist Patrick Holford after he commented on Holford’s incandescently stupid remarks about Vitamin C, AZT and AIDS. See also this post on the Quackometer: No Comment.

Gillian McKeith’s husband, lawyer Howard Magaziner, told John Garrow that he was defaming Ms McKeith by remarking on the lack of published research carried out by McKeith – Garrow said “sue me”. Story here. McKeith’s legal threats are documented in this article in The Guardian. These were: a writ against The Sun newspaper; legal letters to PhDiva and google over a blog post; legal threats to a website called Eclectech; and the Garrow threat.

There is a common thread here. In most of these cases at least, people weren’t trying to protect their reputations against defamatory remarks – they were trying to silence criticism in a cowardly manner through threats, bullying, or attempts at censorship.

EDIT: An update to include Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes (whose name I keep mangling on the internets – sorry HJHOP!) – HJHOP on Legal Chill. Here’s a link I forgot to make earlier: Brainduck on legal bullying and here’s the blog it refers to: (see the ‘page removed’ note for the only hint of legal threat – the legal bullying unfortunately seems to have necessitated this removal). There’s more about legal threats from the people at SPG here:

* Another Edit: DC Science now has details of legal threats from Chiropractors.

Edit 30th June 2010

Brief Update: Idiots are still suing people rather than attempt to deal with legitimate criticism. There are too many lawsuits and threats of lawsuits to mention them all, but I’ll add a couple of links to recent cases.

Since writing this piece, there’s been the famous cases of Simon Singh and the British Chiropractic Association and Matthias Rath versus Ben Goldacre. Today I saw a link to this post by Orac: Doctor’s Data (“more legal thuggery”).

As Orac notes: Augustine doesn’t actually list which specific parts of Dr. Barrett’s article are incorrect, false, fraudulent or otherwise not truthful in the view of his client. The words complained of are not set out. I’m not familiar with the US legislation, but English bloggers might be interested in this: protocol.

The Letter of Claim should include […] the words complained of and, if known, the date of publication; where possible, a copy or transcript of the words complained of should be enclosed […] factual inaccuracies or unsupportable comment within the words complained of; the Claimant should give a sufficient explanation to enable the Defendant to appreciate why the words are inaccurate or unsupportable; […] the nature of the remedies sought by the Claimant.

13th November 2010

And here we go again… this time it’s Rodial.

Update, 22nd August 2011

Click here or here to read about the blogger who chose to use his real name and has now been forced to give up blogging and use of social media due to complaints to his employers from Rhett Daniels.


  1. draust said,

    Quite so, jdc.

    I must admit to being surprised by Dr Briffa’s behaviour since he turned up on your blog (and at Apathy Sketchpad, and Black Triangle) seemingly determined to pick a fight. Reading Briffa’s posts it is hard to escape the impression that he has a tremendous need to prove that he is smarter than everyone else and basically right about everything he says even the merest thing about. Andrew’s last Dr B post over at Apathy Sketchpad is required reading for those struck by Dr B’s notion of “debating”.

    I tried asking Dr Briffa on the other thread here just what extra studies he would like to see done to convince him about the MMR vaccine’s safety. No answer. I repeated the question, very politely, over at his own blog. This has evoked days of silence, apart from one of his little quips about “Oh yes, who would it help if I defined “definitive”?”

    I think this translates as: “I don’t know, but Nyah nyah anyway, I’m the King of the Castle”.

  2. dvnutrix said,

    Nah – is job creation scheme for hard-pressed legal teams. S’much classier than hiring bouncers as reputation enforcers.

  3. colmcq said,

    there’s also a hillarious comment on his latest blog entry “your comments focus not on the message, but the messenger (me). ”

    comment number 4.

  4. draust said,

    Yes, Dr Briffa is not big on self-awareness. Or irony.

    Self-importance and snide-y sarcasm, however, are a different matter.

  5. Political Scientist said,

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