SLAPPs Targeting Academia

SLAPPs Against Academic Freedom

  • In November of 2008, a Texas developer sued the author of a book about an eminent domain development agreement he had signed. In addition to naming the book’s author and publisher, a book reviewer and the newspaper that published the book review, the suit also named Law Professor Richard Epstein, who wrote a brief review on the book jacket, lauding the book as a “page turner.” The suit sought monetary damages and a permanent injunction on further printing or distribution of the book. In March 2009, Epstein was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. See Royall v. Wright Gore, Jr., et. al., No. 29996 (2009); Royall v. Main, et. al., No. DC-08-13480-B (2009).
  • In 2004, the American Academy for Anti-Aging Medicine (4AM) filed a lawsuit against Dr. Thomas Perls of Boston University and Professor S. Jay Olshansky of University of Illinois at Chicago in an Illinois circuit court. The suit alleged that the two professors had engaged in “defamatory conduct” and interfered with A4M’s business and economic advantage.  Examples of interfering conduct included Olshansky’s granting A4M a “silver fleece” award — a designation meant to shame medical professionals who claim they have invented ways to reverse aging. The suit also alleged that at a 2004 A4M conference, Olshansky left a bottle of vegetable oil labeled “snake oil” for the plaintiffs. 4AM alleged $120 million in damages, and Olshansky responded by filing a countersuit. In 2006, A4M agreed to drop its suit if Olshansky dropped his.
  • In 2003, former University of Louisiana at Monroe professor John Scott was sued on the basis of comments he made in an anonymous website called the “Truth at ULM” that criticized the university administration. Richard Baxter, the university’s then vice president for external affairs, sued Scott for several online postings, including one calling Baxter the “Vice-President of Excremental Affairs.”  The Shreveport, La., court dismissed the suit against Scott under the Louisiana anti-SLAPP law, writing, “We believe that publishing statements relating to matters of public interest on a Web site is an exercise of one’s constitutional right of free speech.” Baxter v. Scott, 847 So.2d 225 (2003).
  • In 2001, Manufacturer of the Metabolife herbal diet pill sued a Harvard Medical School professor for product defamation from statements he made in a consumer report on the safety of diet pills containing ephedrine.  Blackburn was able to take advantage of the California anti-SLAPP law to have the case dismissed in a ruling affirmed by U.S. Court of Appeals for Ninth Circuit, and to recover more than $350,000 in attorneys fees and costs. Metabolife v. Blackburn, 264 F.3d 832 (2001).
  • In 1998, Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, was sued for defamation by nursing home company Beverly Enterprises, Inc. over testimony she gave at a congressional town hall meeting. The district court held that her statements were privileged communications made in the course of a legislative proceeding and dismissed the suit. Bronfenbrenner said, “I am deeply gratified that not only has the lawsuit against me been dismissed… and that [the] decision prevents Beverly from pursuing their effort to gain access to my confidential research data on union and employer behavior in organizing and first contract campaigns. This is a relief not only to me, but to the people I surveyed, and to all other researchers in other fields who have been watching my case very carefully. For, if Beverly were to succeed in gaining access to any of my data, researchers across the country would be hesitant to speak about their findings publicly, in articles, lectures, speeches and congressional hearings, for fear that they, too, might be forced to hand over their raw data to the very groups their research criticized.” See Beverly Enterprises, Inc. v. Bronfenbrenner.
  • In 2002, Meena Chandok, a scientist under Daniel Klessig at Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) at Cornell, made exciting discoveries about nitric oxide synthase activity in a plant protein. The findings were published with Klessig in Cell a scientific journal. After Chandok relocated to Maryland, Klessig began to attempt to replicate her original findings, and could not. Worried about having published the results without an adequate level of reproducibility, he retracted the findings from Cell and discussed the lack of reproducibility with other scientists via email, raising the possibility that Chandok’s original results had been falsified. In 2006, Chandok responded by suing Klessig for defamation in the federal court in New York. The court found that Chandok, as a limited public figure, had failed to establish that Klessig’s statements were made with malice, and dismissed the suit on summary judgment. However, the court also denied Klessig’s anti-SLAPP counterclaim, because New York’s anti-SLAPP law protects only statements made in a public application or petition. Therefore, Klessig was unable to recover the fees incurred in defending against the lawsuit. Chandok v. Klessig, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76511 (Aug. 27, 2009).