Vaccine-Autism Controversy: Wakefield Sues British Journal For Defamation in Texas
The British doctor Andrew Wakefield whose discredited study linking autism to the MMR vaccine set off a global public health scare has sued the editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal, Fiona Godlee and also the British investigative journalist Brian Deer, who has long covered the controversy about vaccines and autism, for defamation. A complaint filed to a district court in Texas alleges that articles, editorials and other documents published in the British Medical Journal include “false and make defamatory allegations” about Wakefield and that the claims in the BMJ were “unfair, incorrect, inaccurate, and unjust.”
“It is really is a bizarro day,” Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, wrote on the PLoS blog after the announcement of Wakefield’s suit. On the one hand, yes, although you could say that the entire vaccine-autism controversy, not to mention Wakefield’s claim back in 1998 that the MMR vaccine could be causing autism, were bizarre from the outset. The efforts and passion that many, including the Age of Autism website and journalist David Kirby, have exerted to defend the notion of a vaccine-autism link have been great and have only seemed to grow with each further criticism cast at Wakefield including the 2010 decision by the British Medical Council not to allow him to practice medicine in the UK anymore.
(A small, potentially bizarro detail already emerging about Wakefield’s suit has been uncovered by Orac at Respectful Insolence: William M. Parrish, the lawyer who filed Wakefield’s suit, has the same last name as Anna Christine Parrish, who is on the Junior Advisory Board for the the Autism Trust USA along with one Imogon Wakefield; Carmel Wakefield, Wakefield’s wife, is on the board and the executive committee of that organization.)
It was a year ago this week that the BMJ published the first of a series of articles stating that Wakefield’s research was fraudulent and that he had altered the medical histories of the 12 children in the study; Deer even said that Wakefield should face criminal charges. Wakefield has indeed filed a number of previous suits against Deer in British courts and has dropped every one, notes ABC news. Goodlee and Deer are planning to fight the suit; the BMJ has responded to Wakefield and his lawyers’ assertion that the BMJ did not disclose that it had ”received significant revenue from the very vaccine manufacturers whose products need further investigation” at the time of the articles’ publication.
Wakefield now resides in Austin, Texas, which is where the suit was filed. ABC News notes that his suit cites the “Texas Long-Arm Statute” to justify the venue “insofar as BMJ ‘direct[s] a significant and regular flow of publications, including periodicals, journals, articles, subscriptions, and electronic media to institutional and individual residents of this state.’” Goodlee and Deer have “ridiculed” Wakefield’s choosing to sue via a Texas court rather than ”in London, as might be expected as it concerns a predominantly English publication.” The Houston Chronicle says that Wakefield’s suit will be a good test for Texas’ new Anti-SLAPP laws, which “allow defendants (Deer and BMJ) who have been sued based on their speech to force the plaintiffs (Wakefield) to establish they have a valid basis for their suit before going forward, and to collect attorney fees if the plaintiff fails.”
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin says that it is “surprising that Wakefield would launch this lawsuit in the United States instead of Great Britain, because with the freedom of the press, it’s harder to win a libel suit of this nature in the U.S.” Might it be possible that Wakefield has no plans of winning the suit, but filed it to keep his name and the vaccine-autism controversy in circulation?
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Photo by Dawn Huczek