Anti-vaccine Sharyl Attkisson threatens to sue Dr. Peter Hotez for defamation

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This article about threats to sue Dr. Peter Hotez by anti-vaccine journalist Sharyl Attkisson was written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), who is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease. She is also a member of the Vaccines Working Group on Ethics and Policy.

Litigation threats by anti-vaccine activists are not new, nor are they unusual. Recently, anti-vaccine journalist Sharyl Attkisson sent a litigation threat to Dr. Hotez, a threat she then published online. Her chances, if she actually sues, are slim, but that does not seem to be the point of such threats.

As best as I can tell, litigation threats by anti-vaccine activists serve two purposes, neither of which depending on the validity of the claims. First, towards the target of the threat, the threat can serve as a deterrent to engage with the anti-vaccine activist. Second, in relation to the anti-vaccine activist’s own followers the threats can both serve to create a narrative of victimhood (“I’m targeted by ‘them’), and second to present themselves to their followers as bravely fighting back against attacks.

This post will describe the events, then put them in the context of previous litigation threats by anti-vaccine activists and previous such behavior by Sharyl Attkisson, then make some suggestions to any reader targeted by similar threats. 

What happened between Dr. Hotez and anti-vaccine Sharyl Attkisson?

Dr. Peter Hotez is a vaccine scientist who, in the past, specialized in vaccines for neglected tropical diseases, and worked on creating vaccines to protect the world’s poorest from diseases common among them.

He is also the father of a daughter with autism, and his involvement with anti-vaccine activism came in that context, as he detailed in a book titled “Vaccines did not Cause Rachel’s Autism.” Dr. Hotez has been speaking up against anti-vaccine efforts for a number of years now, and has been targeted by the anti-vaccine movement repeatedly (It’s far from the only thing he does, but to keep this post short, I’ll focus on his activities relevant to it).

On April 27, 2021, Nature published an article by Dr. Hotez titled “COVID Vaccines: Time to Confront Anti-Vax Aggression.”  The article described the harms from anti-vaccine efforts, especially during a global pandemic, and concluded with a strong call to action:

Efforts must expand into the realm of cyber security, law enforcement, public education and international relations. A high-level inter-agency task force reporting to the UN secretary-general could assess the full impact of anti-vaccine aggression, and propose tough, balanced measures. The task force should include experts who have tackled complex global threats such as terrorism, cyber attacks and nuclear armament, because anti-science is now approaching similar levels of peril. It is becoming increasingly clear that advancing immunization requires a counteroffensive.”  

On May 6, Natural News published an article by science-denier Mike Adams titled “NATURE publishes insane rant by Texas pediatrician Peter Hotez, who seemingly calls for United Nation SHOCK TROOPS to wage ‘counteroffensive’ against all anti-vaxxers” (CAPS Lock in original).

After expressing anger at Dr. Hotez’s article, the article called for the reader to contact Dr. Hotez and provided his contact information. Although the article called on followers to “be polite” and not to engage in “threats of violence”, Mr. Adams has to be aware that his followers are aggressive, uncontrolled, and do engage in threats, and his own language is clearly designed to rile them up (on the tactic of riling up followers and then denying the intent to violence, which is one Mr. Adams uses repeatedly).

On the same day, May 6, Sharyl Attkisson also published an article that addressed Dr. Hotez, but her article was different. Ms. Attkisson is a journalist with a long history of anti-vaccine activism. She has published highly problematic articles promoting the myth that vaccines cause autism, for example.

Sharyl Attkisson has published problematic articles attacking vaccine supporters. In the service of the disgraced, fraudulent doctor and anti-vaccine activist Andrew Wakefield she was even willing to contribute to white-washing the brutal killing of an autistic teen by his mother and her friend.

pexels-photo-5863400.jpeg
Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

In July 2020, apparently, Attkisson’s employer, Sinclair, pulled a segment in which she promoted HCQ as a cure for COVID-19, a disproven claim, a segment that included, among other things, an interview with conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccine activist Judy Mikovits.

In short, Sharyl Attkisson has a long history of supporting and aligning herself with the anti-vaccine movement. Her May 6 article was titled “Dr. Mercola Purges his website of articles on Vitamins D, C, Zinc, and COVID-19”.

It is not actually her original article, it’s a quoted version of an article by Dr. Mercola. But it opens with an introduction by Ms. Attkisson. In relation to Dr. Hotez, the article said:

Mercola has long run afoul of pharmaceutical interests and those acting in their interest, such as Dr. Peter Hotez.

Note that in this setup, Ms. Attkisson is already using the shill gambit, presenting Dr. Hotez as serving “pharmaceutical interests” – with no good basis, since Dr. Hotez does not actually work for or with a specific pharmaceutical company. It then continued by quoting Dr. Mercola attacking Dr. Hotez as a “Gates-funded doctor.”

Attkisson quoted Dr. Mercola’s description of Dr. Hotez as President of Sabin Vaccine Institute (though Dr. Hotez resigned from that role in 2017 ), trying to attribute to Dr. Hotez the personal contributions the Gates Foundation made to the Sabin Vaccine Institute. Ms. Attkisson quoted uncritically that error and then quoted the additional claims Dr. Mercola made accusing Dr. Hotez of “calling for the use of warfare tactics on American citizens that have done nothing illegal.”

Although Ms. Attkisson did not share Dr. Hotez’ contact information, her article clearly includes an attack on him.

As a result of these articles, Dr. Hotez received many angry, extreme messages. On May 7, 2021, he posted a tweet saying:

Today was a rough, more than most. The website Natural News called on their followers to contact me, providing contact info phones emails, comparing me to Mengele sending image after image of Nuremberg. Then Sharyl Attkisson endorsed it on her website. This was my 1st email today.

Dr. Hotez was wrong in thinking that Ms. Attkisson shared the Natural News story, but right in noting that she, too, attacked him on her website that same day. Apparently, after being alerted to the error, Dr. Hotez took down the tweet.

Nonetheless, at some point between May 7 and May 18, 2021, Ms. Attkisson sent a legal threat to Dr. Hotez. The letter said:

Indeed, when the error was brought to your attention, rather than acknowledge any responsibility, you doubled down. Instead of immediately removing the false and defamatory posts, you publicly engaged with Ms. Attkisson, falsely accusing Ms. Attkisson of placing you in harm’s way through “dangerous and hurtful” conduct and falsely claiming that you had not “mentioned” her “in any writings and yet you make up all these terrible things about me.”

While Sharyl Attkisson did not share the Natural News article, she did say incorrect things to attack Dr. Hotez, things that can lead to angry responses from anti-vaccine activists, and that did include things that were not true (like claiming he was President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute). 

The letter, trying to build a case for defamation (which would, for someone like Ms. Attkisson, require showing actual malice – that Dr. Hotez knew that what he was saying was not true), alleged that “As you knew at the time, Ms. Attkisson did none of these things.”

This is a problematic statement, given that Ms. Attkisson did publish an attack article that day – even if a different one – and that the situation clearly suggests that Dr. Hotez simply confused the two attack articles. The letter accuses Dr. Hotez of having “a pre-conceived narrative you seek to push and therefore a motive for your defamation, fabrication of the accusation in its entirety, and because you have refused to acknowledge that your accusations are false.”

That is a strange claim. Dr. Hotez made a mistake, but there’s nothing in the situation suggesting a fabrication or preconceived narrative. The fact that Dr. Hotez took the tweet down when he found the error goes the other way, and the fact that he didn’t immediately take it down doesn’t mean otherwise: it may take time to be convinced that an open attacker – and Ms. Attkisson’s article makes her an open attacker – was right.

The letter is aggressive and seems ill-founded. I suspect Dr. Hotez’s lawyers would advise him against caving to its demands, and in support of that, Dr. Hotez has not posted the apology the aggressive letter demanded. 

Legal threats are a common tactic of anti-vaccine activists

This kind of behavior – using legal threats to intimidate opponents – is common among anti-vaccine activists. I have written about it myself as far back as 2013. Andrew Wakefield – the doctor who wrote a fraudulent paper claiming the MMR vaccine caused autism – has a long history of baseless defamation lawsuits and legal threats, documented even more in Brian Deer’s wonderful book, The Doctor Who Fooled the World. Most recently, Orac documented several such threats on May 26, 2021.

Ms. Attkisson, too, has a history of using such tactics. 

Science deniers use such threats because, well, they work. Many people would be intimidated and threatened just by the threat of legal actions. Many people do not have easy access to lawyers, and may not be able to afford the time and money of litigating. 

I hope and expect Dr. Hotez is better situated to deal with such a threat. For those of you who are not, I would like to first offer, as a resource, the talented Popehat’s wonderful (if sweary) discussion of what to do if you were threatened with a defamation lawsuit. Popehat encourages you, in that situation, to first calm down – don’t do anything in haste. Then he offers several steps to take as you consider the situation. Unfortunately, some of them will involve talking to a lawyer. 

What to do if you don’t have access to one or can’t afford one? Well, reach out. I’m not a lawyer, but I am happy to try and help you find one. Popehat would probably be my first stop in such a quest, and he has helped many, many people. 

In another article about harassment, I had this to say, and I stand by it:

  1. If you are threatened by anti-vaccine activist harassment, first of all, do take a breath. Give yourself a moment.
  2. Remember that most such threats are not legally sound. Most of the time – though not always – you have done nothing actionable. You need to check the specifics, but many, many such threats are without basis.

Reach out to your pro-vaccine groups and ask for help. We can support you emotionally, and chances are we can help you find a pro-bono lawyer. It’s not guaranteed, but there are several places we can look for you. Popehat is a wonderful resource for looking, and we have other options.

Remember that you are not alone. It’s hard to be targeted. But it’s also a sign that you are effective, or at least considered effective by the anti-vaccine movement.

At the end of the day, science deniers use legal threats because they can’t win on the merits and can’t take criticism, even as they do not hesitate to attack others, often with claims of dubious (or no) merit. There isn’t always a good defense; it’s not a perfect world. But there may be, and you’re not alone. If you can, better not to let them win.

Among other things, because like in other situations, the first demand won’t often be the last. You do not want to show science deniers that this kind of threat works on you, not if you want to keep correcting misinformation and working to protect others. 

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss
This article is by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy and the law. 

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.