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This was a presentation given at Skepticamp Melbourne on November 25, 2016.
One of the dangers of being an outspoken skeptic is that often people won't like what you have to say. The most common way these days for people to respond to what they don't like hearing seems to be to reach for lawyers, or if lawyers are unavailable to find ways that they can exploit the rules of various forums to shut you up.
The second of these applies to the tactic used on an almost daily basis by anti-vaccination liars to whine to Facebook about breaches of Facebook's community standards. To breach the standards all you have to do is mention somebody's name. Regular users of Facebook will know that clicking on "Reply" will often fill in the name of the person to whom you are responding. That automatic name filling is enough to get you a temporary or maybe even permanent ban from Facebook if the named person complains. I know this doesn't sound logical – you can be banned from Facebook because Facebook does something – but that is the way things work. I've been banned six or seven times, and hardly a week goes by without one of my friends announcing that they can only be contacted through a sock puppet for the next few days. Not that we have sock puppets of course, because Facebook doesn't allow that.
The images on the screen show two occasions when I was suspended from Facebook. I wasn't insulting anyone – I was simply pointing out that Dr Trademark doesn't have an MD degree and shouldn't use the postnominal when promoting her liver cleansing nonsense.
Over the years I have received many threats of legal action from people whose feelings were hurt by my telling the truth about them. Some of these threats came from actual, real lawyers, some of them from pretend lawyers, and some from people who simply think that if you use a lot of long words the recipient will think that a lawyer might have been involved in the process somewhere. My usual response to these has been to list them as vacuous legal threats on my website and respond with nothing except ridicule.
On only three occasions has anyone gone to an actual court and filed some paperwork. When this happens you usually can't ignore it, because courts can do all sorts of unpleasant things to you if you don't do as you are told.
The first of these was court action started in California by the now thankfully dead cancer quack Hulda Clark. (She wrote a book called The Cure For All Cancers. She died. Of cancer. She was cremated and her ashes were distributed in the Pacific Ocean just south of San Diego. I asked one of her major followers if they had received EPA approval to dump toxic waste but I didn't get a satisfactory reply.)
The charges were:
I wasn't the only person mentioned in the action (which was brought by her publishing company for damaging sales of her books). Defendants lived on four continents (note that trespass was one of the offences), and included non-existent people such as domain names and a mailing list that I ran at Yahoo! called "Quackbusters of the Illuminati" which described itself as "a meeting place for the anti-alternative-medicine committee of the Illuminati, where we can meet and consider our attack on health freedom within the broader agenda of world domination."
A supposed journalist used this to attack me once. I told her that I would let her join the list if she asked, and I even offered to sponsor her for membership of the Illuminati. She didn't reply. Quackonauts have no sense of humour.
The seriousness of this suit could be shown by the fact that the lawyer bringing the suit called me a "bottom feeding parasite" in a public forum and one of the other parties said that the objective was to bankrupt the defendants, an action which is illegal in California.
After 260 days the court told the lawyers to get off the pot and the suit was withdrawn. The withdrawal was not mentioned on the lawyer's website and for a long time afterwards the fact that I was supposedly being sued was being announced by quackonauts.
A few years later I was taken to court by a company which had been found by the Federal Court of Australia be operating an illegal pyramid scheme. They did not like me reporting this and sued me, not for defamation (because corporations of a certain size cannot sue for defamation) but for damaging their business. They went to court with what is called an ex parte application – to have the case heard without telling me about it. The judge disagreed and ordered them to serve me with the papers.
My favourite whinge they had was that I was damaging their business because I had somehow manipulated Google.
Look – evidence!
They also claimed that I was in some sort of conspiracy with Telstra and Optus. Neither of these matters were actually mentioned during the court proceedings.
Unfortunately all they had to do was to produce someone who was prepared to swear in court they hadn't done business with them because of what I had said and the judge would have been required to find in their favour. As the company's employed internal solicitor had committed perjury in a contempt of court action that they engineered against me, I wasn't confident that they wouldn't put a liar on the stand. Even though the judge had referred to them as "shonks like you" he would had to have found in their favour, and even if he only awarded $1 damages I could have been liable for their legal fees which we estimated at a quarter of a million dollars. We settled without a decision being made in either party's favour.
Note that the court dismissed many of their claims and made no costs order. This didn't stop people from claiming that I had been found guilty of defamation (defamation had nothing to do with the case and guilt doesn't apply in civil cases) and bankrupted by costs. You can win and still lose.
Time went by until 2012, when Meryl Dorey of the Australian Vaccination Network applied to the court for an Apprehended Violence Order against me. Her statement to the court was a masterpiece of dog's breakfast. (I almost sad mad woman's breakfast then, but that would not be politically correct.)
She even managed to file a second batch of complaints, in which she expressed her displeasure at the food I eat in pubs.
As she lived 750 km away from me she had absolutely no hope of success but she managed to drag it out through successive adjournments for nine months before the magistrate finally threw her into the street. She extended the torment by appealing that decision until she withdrew the appeal three days before it was to be heard in court.
You might think I can put this down as two wins and a draw, but even if you win one of these cases or settle to make it go away you still lose. The two cases that actually got to court cost me money and extended disruption to my business and family life. Unless you are a lawyer and are paid to be there, going to court is no fun for anyone.
The message this is of course that you should try not to offend people, but that can be difficult to do if you want to fight fraud, pseudoscience and medical quackery. You just need to be very careful about the targets you pick and what you say.
And keep your lawyer's phone number on speed dial.
But what about the other side? Should you initiate legal action against people who upset, offend or defame you?
My advice is "No" unless you can be guaranteed of a successful result or you can demonstrate to the court's satisfaction that you or your business have suffered actual measurable damage. Of course if you have unlimited money, you should go for it, but most of us aren't in that position. I remember a rather controversial millionaire once telling me that he had asked Kerry Packer about the largest defamation payout in Australia's history and commented that as he had more money than that he felt very safe. I'm not sure that I would bet the family fortune even under those circumstances.
The real danger is what is called the Streisand Effect - that is bringing to the attention of people who know nothing about you the accusations that are being made and the statements that offend or attack you. I've been called all sorts of dreadful names by people, including paedophile, but these attacks have generally been made in places where they can't do me much harm, generally because the audience knows both me and the person making the accusations or the audience (for example members of anti-vaccination mailing lists) already assume I'm evil. In fact I have had a policy for a long time of letting people say whatever they like about me without retaliation from me except words. My main defence against the AVO application for example was that Meryl Dorey had been accusing me of criminal activity for many years and I respected her right to make ridiculous and defamatory statements, because they never really caused me any harm. But I still wanted the right of reply, which she was trying to deny me through the AVO.
The TL;DR version – as far as possible restrict your contact with courts to watching episodes of "Law & Order" or "Crownies". At least they won't cost you any more than a Netflix subscription.