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How Andrew Wakefield Tried To Censor Opponents

I’ll stop banging on about Wakefield soon, but in the meantime I thought he’d make a good example of why England needs to get their act together and reform libel laws now. England is currently the libel capital of the world, and you can get sued here even if you don’t live here. Lawsuits can cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars – even if you win. Go sign the Libel Reform petition now, and follow the instructions there to send a letter to your representative.

PS: You still have time to fill out the Skepchick Reader Census! I’ll be crunching the numbers starting tomorrow and reporting on the interesting responses soon.

UPDATE! Full transcript after the jump, thanks to Jeff Cox.

How Andrew Wakefield Tried To Censor Opponents (February 15th)

So last week I talked all about Andrew Wakefield. Particularly what a jerk he is, and how it was his poor science that lead to the current anti-vaccination movement. And of course that he was recently discredited by the general medical council and his original paper was rejected by the Lancet. Which pretty much ruins the foundation of the Anti-Vax crowd.

Well, that is, if they bother to look at the real world, and logic, and things like that. Because, I don’t want to belabor the point, but I really need to address this letter that Jenny McCarthy and Jim Cary supposedly wrote themselves.

Basically what it does is it defends Wakefield, but of course not using facts (because they don’t really have those). And they don’t bother to explain away his behavior, like giving Lumbar punctures to develop-mentally disabled children that don’t need them, and without ethics approval. No, they don’t bother to tell us why he did that. But instead they just shout that it was censorship. That Wakefield is simply being censored.

And So I thought that that might be a good excuse to talk about censorship, using Wakefield as an example.

Back in 2004, there was a documentary called “MMR, What They Didn’t Tell You,” and the documentary starred Brian Deer, Sunday Times reporter, who had done an intensive investigation into Wakefield’s practices over the previous few years. And so this documentary summed up all of his findings. And… I mean his findings are basically exactly what the general medical council recently found, at the end of their two year inquiry.

So, when this went to air obviously Wakefield was not happy. But there’s really not a lot he can do about it when it comes to facts. So, because he couldn’t meet Brian Deer and his other detractors head-on, he decided to shut them up. And he did this using the English high court.

You see, for those of you who don’t know, I moved to England recently. Despite the accent, I am now here in London. And, I was really shocked to discover that England doesn’t have the same free speech as we have in the states. And in fact, it’s known as the libel capital of the world. Because it’s so easy to sue somebody for Libel, or at least to threaten to sue them in order to shut them up. The reason why that works is because it’s incredibly expensive to defend against a libel case, and it can be really difficult to prove your side, to defend yourself.

So Wakefield sued Brian Deer as well as Channel 4, and he went on for 2 years before eventually dropping the suit. And during that time, he racked up 1.3 million pounds in legal bills.

And the thing is, he wasn’t even paying for it, it was paid for by the medical protection society. So, it didn’t really matter to him. Um, but the thing is, it mattered quite a bit to Brian Deer, because if Brian Deer were to loose this libel case, then he would be responsible for paying all of Wakefield’s legal bills.

So most people when faced with libel threat like that would just give up. They would issue an apology, they would just retract their statement, and the criticism would never air. And there’s a very good chance that that’s what Wakefield wanted. But instead Channel 4 and Deer fought the battle. They spent a lot of money that they weren’t guaranteed to recoup. Even if you win a libel case, chances are your entire legal cost won’t be paid by the person who brought the suit against you.

In his judgment, the justice on the case actually wrote that Wakefield never had any desire to follow through on the proceedings, and that he was just using the trial as a weapon in his attempts to close down discussion and debate over an important public issue.

So yeah, that’s what censorship is really all about. But the good news is that you can do something about it. If you go to libelreform.org, you’ll find a petition that you can sign to encouraging England’s leaders to finally change libel laws for the better. To make them less expensive, to help people defend themselves. Particularly scientists and writers, and other people who are just being critical, who are being open about their criticism and engaging in an open debate and are being shut down for it. Um, you can also send a letter to you MP through the libelreform.org website. And if you’re not in England, sign the petition anyway. Because we need as many signatures as signatures as we can, and it effects you. You might not know it but, if you say anything, for instance on-line, if you write something that someone else claims is defamatory, they can take you to court in England if only one person here happened to read it. Even if you’re not here, even if they’re not here, they can still sue you here. So help stop England from being the libel capital of the world, and protect free speech. Libelreform.org. Thanks, guys.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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