|Cinema Libre Founder and CEO, Philippe Diaz|
Source: Cinema Libre Studio
But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me back up and start by introducing you to Fiona O'Leary. Fiona is the mother of five children, living with her husband in Ireland. Two of her children are autistic, as is Fiona herself. Several years ago, she became an outspoken advocate for autistic rights, campaigning against quack autism treatments like MMS, chelation, GcMAF, and so on. Last year, she was featured in an Irish documentary called Bleach Cult, which detailed the bleach treatment known as MMS, a protocol created by ex-Scientologist Jim Humble. She also worked with the Illinois attorney general to shut down MMS promoter Kelli Rivera. In April 2015, Fiona and her husband, Tim, founded the charity Autistic Rights Together, an organization of autistic and non-autistic individuals dedicated to promoting the rights and respect for children, teens, and adults on the autism spectrum.
On July 19, Fiona started a Change.org petition to stop the film Vaxxed and its production team (Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and Polley Tommey) from spreading its anti-vaccine message (e.g., stating that there is no safe vaccine) in the state of Texas, and possibly beyond. The petition notes how the film and its production team are spreading misinformation about vaccines and autism around the country, particularly during the Q&A sessions after some of the screenings. Examples include Polly Tommey telling people that pediatricians are dangerous and should be avoided, Tommey saying that she would never judge parents who murder their autistic children, and Bigtree's urging of anti-vaccine activists to exercise their second amendment right to bear arms in their fight against vaccinations. Fiona also notes Bigtree's comments comparing autistic individuals to chimps and dogs, as well as how the supporters of Vaxxed ridicule autistic individuals who protest the film.
This is where we get back to Philippe Diaz and Cinema Libre's threats. On July 21, he sent a letter on the studio's letterhead to Mrs. O'Leary threatening her with legal action.
|Mr. Diaz threatens legal action against Fiona O'Leary|
Click to enlarge.
Diaz, in my opinion, has made some very significant errors. First, he picked a target that is a very outspoken advocate for autism rights, one who would have no qualms going public about this threat. Second, I don't think he took into account the widespread support that Fiona has from other members of the scientific and autistic communities. There have already been several posts written about Cinema Libre's actions, including posts by Reasonable Hank and Emma Delayne. More are almost certain to surface.
There is also the question of why Diaz targeted Fiona. Numerous people have pointed out the falsehoods and lack of ethics in the movie Vaxxed, as well as calling out Wakefield, Bigtree, and Tommey for their often inflammatory and incorrect statements about vaccines and autism. Yet none of those individuals have received letters threatening them with legal action. Even another filmmaker, Todd Drezner, has spoken out against Vaxxed. This is significant, considering Drezners' film, Loving Lampposts, was also distributed by Cinema Libre. Regarding the studio's latest actions, Drezner notes:
Cinema Libre distributes my documentary, which calls Wakefield's research fraudulent. Therefore, CLS should sue itself for defamation.Perhaps Fiona was targeted because not only has she pointed out the dangerous statements of Del Bigtree, Polly Tommey, and the movie Vaxxed, but she has also urged others to take action to stop them. That threatens not only the production team's pocketbooks, but Cinema Libre's income, as well. Perhaps Diaz thought Fiona would be an easy target, that she would pull her petition and cower in silence, rather than face the threat of a lawsuit.
Speaking from experience, this letter seems more likely to just be posturing and bluff, rather than a real threat. You see, several years ago, I was also on the receiving end of a threatened defamation lawsuit. There are several aspects of the letter that suggest it is more bluster than true threat.
First, as with the note that I got in 2012, there is no mention of specific statements considered to be defamatory. Rule #1 if you're going to accuse someone of defamation: make sure you state explicitly what they said that is defamatory. In order to prove libel/slander, you have to show that the comment was a:
- publication of a statement of fact
- that is false,
- has a natural tendency to injure or which causes "special damage," and
- the defendant's fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence.
Another tell that Diaz likely won't follow through on his threat is that he demands that Fiona not make any further statements about Vaxxed, Cinema Libre Studio, Wakefield, Bigtree, Tommey, Autism Media Channel, or anyone else associated with AMC. Talk about a suppression of speech rights. Which is rather ironic, considering how Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree posed next to a large display quoting Frederick Douglass on free speech:
|Wakefield and Bigtree support free speech, but only if it agrees with them.|
Finally, letters claiming real defamation, which request that specific offending statements be removed, and which threaten legal action for noncompliance are generally written, or at least reviewed by, a lawyer before being sent to the offending party. Diaz chose to write the letter and send it to his lawyer, Jay Statman, at the same time that he sent it to O'Leary. Any good lawyer would have advised against sending such a vacuous demand if they had any intention of following through in court.
All that really remains are questions that arise should Diaz foolishly follow through.
First, where would he file suit? Since Fiona's petition is specific to Texas, and that is where Wakefield resides, that seems the most logical location. Texas is also home to Autism Media Channel, Wakefield's and Tommey's media company. However, Texas has a rather strong anti-SLAPP law. He could file in California, since that's the home of Cinema Libre. California also has some reasonable anti-SLAPP laws. Since anti-SLAPP laws generally allow for the defendant to reclaim legal fees if they win, he might try to bring suit in a state without such a law.
Whatever state he chooses, though, Diaz would also have to prove that Fiona acted with actual malice, since the plaintiffs would be public figures and this is a matter of public interest. In other words, not only does he have to prove that the statements were false, but he would also have to prove that Fiona knew they were false beforehand or recklessly did not care whether or not they were false. That sets a rather high bar for him to overcome.
Because of the legal hurdles in the U.S., Diaz might try to bring his case in Ireland, where Fiona resides. Irish law requires the defendant to prove that the statement is true, since alleged defamatory comments are presumed to be defamatory unless otherwise proved. That seems a rather expensive proposition, since he would need to find a lawyer there, as well as pay for travel costs to get there. Given how long court cases can drag on, that could run up a rather large bill.
Another question that comes to mind is whether this is actually Diaz's idea at all or if he was prompted by Wakefield or Bigtree. It certainly sounds like something that Wakefield would do, since he has tried to sue people for libel several times before in attempts to silence them, and he failed each time. In fact, in Wakefield's first failed libel case against British journalist Brian Deer, the presiding justice, The Honorable David Eady, described Wakefield using the proceedings as:
a weapon in his attempts to close down discussion and debate over an important public issue.Finally, there's the little matter of discovery. This cannot go well for Philippe Diaz, Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, or Polly Tommey. I can envision them feverishly deleting emails and texts to hide anything that they may have said about Fiona O'Leary that could jeopardize their case or give her more fuel in her fight against their message.
I've written to Mr. Diaz asking for some clarification on his letter. We'll see if he responds or remains quiet.
In the end, I applaud Fiona O'Leary for standing up to Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, Polly Tommey, and the movie Vaxxed. While they do have the right to say (almost) anything they want, they are not free from criticism, nor are they free from the consequences of what they say. The message that they are spreading is dangerous to public health, generally, and more specifically to the health of children across the world. Fiona is calling for the Texas attorney general to investigate them and determine whether their comments and message represent a public threat. If you support this, consider adding your name to her petition. Remember, while they are guaranteed the right to not have their speech suppressed by the government, they are not guaranteed a platform for that speech.
Furthermore, if you oppose using libel laws to bully critics into silence, particularly Cinema Libre's attempts to bully Fiona O'Leary, an autistic woman and advocate for autism rights, into complete silence with regard to Vaxxed and its production team, consider adding your name to Kevin Jenco's petition to several motion picture organizations, asking them to cease doing business with Cinema Libre unless the studio retracts their threat and issues an apology. Jenco makes three demands in his petition:
- That all members of the motion picture community refuse to do business with Cinema Libre until they retract their threat and issue an apology.
- That the Motion Picture Association of America issue a condemnation of Cinema Libre.
- That theater groups across the country refuse to show Vaxxed.
I also encourage readers to speak up and voice their own opinions on Cinema Libre and Philippe Diaz's actions. Mr. Diaz wants criticism shut down. Shine a light on this. Amplify the story of what he, Wakefield, Bigtree, and Polley are doing. Show them to be the bullies they are and refuse to be quiet.
Using the threat of a defamation suit to bully your critics into silence simply because you don't like what they have to say or because it paints you in an unflattering light not only abuses the legal system, it chills public discourse. Those who shake their sabers and threaten to bring such a frivolous lawsuit ought to be ashamed. After all, as Wakefield and Bigtree know, "to suppress free speech is a double wrong".
[Edited to Add (7/25/16): It looks like someone in the anti-vaccine community doesn't like the idea of Fiona O'Leary speaking her mind or advocating for the rights of autistic people. They have started a petition asking the Irish government to regulate the term "advocate".]