Junkfood Science: Threats to citizen journalism

April 06, 2008

Threats to citizen journalism

What may be the biggest story to hit the blogging community to date has, incredibly, received no notice by mainstream media. While there is little to add to the eloquent and pivotal blog posts on this ugly saga, JFS must join the voices of fellow medical and science bloggers and help to ensure everyone learns what is going on.

A New Hampshire blogger who has won the admiration of the scientific and medical community for her extensively researched and compassionate articles on disability advocacy and autism at her site, Neurodiversity, was hit with a subpoena just hours after writing a post that apparently caught the ire of a lawyer. Specifically, a lawyer who has filed 577 anti-vaccine cases under the 1988 National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Her post had revealed troubling ethical questions surrounding research sponsored by an institute he’d founded and his financial incentives in vaccine-injury claims.

The sweeping subpoena she has received demands she produce "all documents pertaining to the setup, financing, research, and maintaining" her blog; personal bank statements, canceled checks, online or offline donation documents, and tax returns; Freedom of Information Act requests, LexixNexis and PACER usage records; all documents (e-mails, notes, memos, letters, etc.) pertaining to communications related to her blog; all documents related to her communications with representatives of the federal government, the pharmaceutical industry, advocacy groups, non-governmental organizations, political action groups, profit or non-profit entities, journals, editorial boards, scientific boards, academic boards, medical licensing boards, any "religious groups (Muslim or otherwise), or individuals with religious affiliations," and any other "concerned individuals."

Every blogger cited on her blogroll was also listed in the subpoena.

As Walter Olson at Overlawyered.com wrote, the blogger has not been accused of violating the rights of anyone, she isn’t party to any vaccine lawsuit, nor does she possess any special knowledge of vaccine litigation, as she is a journalist and everything she has written about is in the public domain. “[T]he first phrase that occurred to me on looking through the subpoena was ‘fishing expedition’, and the second was ‘intimidation,’” wrote Olson. Clearly, the subpoena is an attempt to harass and threaten her into silence and discredit her.

As New York attorney Eric Turkewitz wrote, this sets an ugly precedence for every blogger who writes freely under their First Amendment rights. “This is about going after the citizen-journalist for having the audacity to speak freely on a subject,” he wrote. He called upon the Court, pursuant to Chambers vs NASCO, "to punish conduct which abuses the judicial process [which] may occur when a party has acted in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive reasons. And that seems to fit the bill here,” he wrote.

As this blogger has learned, this isn’t the first time that medical bloggers have been the victims of legal maneuvers trying to scare them into shutting down, organized efforts to silence or discredit them by well-financed special interests, career blacklisting to starve them out, and even death threats. There is a reason it’s increasingly difficult to find bloggers with the integrity and bravery to speak out with the truth, trying to help people, and because it’s the right thing to do. For independent bloggers, doing so ensures no survivable income. As Kathleen Seidel wrote in her Motion to Quash, her blog is a “one-woman labor of love, creativity, conviction and conscience.”

Kathleen, you go girl! I hope you know you have the admiration and support of the medical and science blogging community.

For more information on this saga, check out her full story here.

A list of responses and coverage from the blog community is here.

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