DR. PAUL OFFIT SUED FOR INVASION OF PRIVACY
IN THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE STATE OF OREGON FOR THE COUNTY OF MULTNOMAH
PLAINTIFF, an individual,
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, a New York corporation, and PAUL A. OFFIT, M.D., an individual, Defendants.
Plaintiff alleges as follows:
1. Nature of Action This is an action brought by Plaintiff against Columbia University Press ("the Press") and Paul A. Offit, M.D. ("Offit") (collectively, "Defendants") for false light invasion of privacy arising from a fictionalized online "conversation" between Plaintiff and Kathleen Seidel. The fictionalized conversation appears in Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, a book authored by Offit and published by the Press. Offit fabricated the online conversation to portray Plaintiff, a respected spokesperson and advocate for biomedical treatment of autism, as responding unreasonably and in a threatening manner to a "plea" by Seidel, a supporter of Offit's pro-vaccination views. In truth, as a simple inspection of the relevant websites reveals no such "plea" was ever made by Seidel, and the response attributed to Plaintiff never occurred as stated by Offit. Offit simply made up the exchange because it suited his purpose of villainizing Plaintiff in the community of parents, volunteers, and members of the public concerned about the link between vaccines and autism.
2. The central premise of AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS pits Offit's pro-vaccination beliefs against those more cautious about the use of vaccines. Those in the pro-vaccination camp, like Offit (who invented a vaccine that he actively promotes the use of), believe that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Others, such as Plaintiff and his group Generation Rescue, believe that some children, like Plaintiff's son, are victims of too many vaccines administered too early, triggering a regression into autism.
3. To stoke the fires of this controversy, to sell more copies of his book, and to place supporters of his pro-vaccination views in a more favorable and sympathetic light, Offit fictionalized the exchange between Seidel, a supporter of Offit's views, and Plaintiff, one of Offit's sharpest critics. Offit accomplished this fabrication by creating a made-up "plea" by Seidel for Plaintiff to stop promoting a certain autism therapy. Offit then falsified a "response" to this phony "plea" by quoting, completely out of context, a message that Plaintiff had posted on a different message board in response to an entirely different topic.
4. To be clear, the online conversation described in Offit's book never happened. Offit purposely and deceptively linked these two statements in an effort to put Plaintiff in a disreputable and false light, damaging his reputation, credibility, and goodwill, both in the autism community in which he actively advocates and in the business community where he manages a well-known global private equity firm.
5. Plaintiff does not question or challenge Offit's right to report factual information and make fair comment on issues of public concern. Legitimate reporting and public debate end, however, when inflammatory statements are falsely attributed and fabricated conversations are reported as fact. Accordingly, Plaintiff brings this action to vindicate his rights and reputation under civil law. As a result of Defendants' conduct, Plaintiff's reputation and goodwill as a spokesperson for Generation Rescue and its causes has been damaged. Plaintiff has been further damaged in having to expend substantial resources to retain and repair his reputation. Because of these and other injuries sustained as a result of Defendants' conduct, Plaintiff is entitled to damages in an amount to be determined at trial but, in any event, no less than $65,000.
6. Upon discovery of the fictionalized account in the book, Plaintiff, through his attorney, confronted Offit and the Press with the error and demanded that it be retracted and removed from future editions of the book. The Press, on behalf of itself and Offit, refused to admit Offit's error in fabricating the exchange, refused to issue a retraction, and refused to remove the fabricated exchange from future publications of AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS. Because Plaintiff thus faces the prospect of continuing irreparable harm as a result of the damaging and disparaging characterizations in Defendants' publication, Plaintiff seeks—in addition to compensatory damages—an order requiring Defendants to retract the fictionalized exchange from already-published copies of Autism's False Prophets, and an order prohibiting its inclusion in future editions of Autism's False Prophets.
7. Plaintiff is a resident of the State of Oregon. Plaintiff is the co-founder of Generation Rescue, a parent-funded and parent-led non-profit Oregon corporation that is focused on biomedical treatment for autism. Generation Rescue believes that many children diagnosed with neurological disorders, like autism, in fact suffer from environmental illnesses that are primarily caused by the overuse of vaccinations in children and heavy metal exposure, among other things. Generation Rescue believes that such illnesses can be cured using methods such as avoidance of vaccinations, change in diet, and therapies to remove metal toxicity from the body and eradicate an over-burden of chronic viruses. Plaintiff and his wife founded Generation Rescue after their son regressed into autism at approximately two years of age.
8. Defendant Columbia University Press is a publisher located in New York, New York, its principal place of business. The Press publishes titles in various fields, including in the fields of health and science. In September 2008, the Press published AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS, the book authored by Offit containing the fictionalized exchange that is the subject of this Complaint. The Press has featured Offit and his book on the homepage of its website and as an "Author of the Month" for January 2009. On its website, the Press currently promotes Offit as "a national expert on vaccines" who, in AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS, "challenges the modern-day false prophets who have so egregiously misled the public ...." The Press sells its books throughout the United States and around the world, including in the State of Oregon.
9. Defendant Paul A. Offit, M.D. resides in Pennsylvania. Offit is an immunologist and co-inventor of RotaTeq, a rotavirus vaccine. Offit promotes the use of vaccines in children, and vehemently disputes any connection between vaccines and autism in the book AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS. A January 12, 2009 New York Times Article, "Book Is Rallying Resistance to the Antivaccine Crusade," by Donald G. McNeil Jr., described AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS as "[a] new book defending vaccines, written by a doctor infuriated at the claim that they cause autism ...." Offit's books, including AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS, are sold throughout the United States and around the world, including in the State of Oregon.
10. Non-Party Kathleen Seidel is the other participant in the fictionalized exchange featured in AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS. Seidel is a supporter of Offit's pro-vaccination views and maintains the website www.neurodiversity.com. Seidel prominently promotes Offit's book, AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS, on her website and encourages her readers to purchase Offit's book by providing a link (Autism Books at Amazon.com) that, with a single click, directs readers to the Amazon.com purchasing page for Offit's book. Seidel also features AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS on the Recommended Books page on her website.
11. Jurisdiction This Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims pursuant to Oregon Rules of Civil Procedure 4 A(4) and 4 D.
12. Defendants are subject to personal jurisdiction in Oregon because they engage in substantial and not isolated activities within the State, including the distribution and sale of Offit's book, AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS. In addition, Offit frequently comments on local Oregon matters, such as the 2008 lawsuit filed on behalf of two Portland children who regressed into autism after they were vaccinated. Defendants are also subject to personal jurisdiction in Oregon because they distributed AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS (which was then used within the State in the ordinary course of trade) within the State. Moreover, the Press's publication AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS, and Offit's fictionalized passage in particular, was purposefully directed at Plaintiff and his organization, to affect their reputations, which are centered in Oregon. On information and belief, Defendants derive substantial revenue from books sold in the State of Oregon.
13. Venue Venue is proper in this Court because Plaintiff resides in Multnomah County and suffered substantial injuries here.
14. factual background
Kathleen Seidel's May 2005 Open Letter Regarding Metal Toxicity
Seidel believes that there is no link between vaccinations or heavy metal poisoning and autism. Seidel promotes those beliefs on her website, www.neurodiversity.com.
15. On May 29, 2005, Seidel posted "Evidence of Venom: An Open Letter to David Kirby, author, Evidence of Harm" on her www.neurodiversity.com website. Seidel's Open Letter addresses EVIDENCE OF HARM, a 2006 book published by David Kirby, a professional journalist for the New York Times. EVIDENCE OF HARM presents the possibility that mercury in vaccines may cause autism in some children.
16. Explaining that she is the mother of two teenagers, one with a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, Seidel wrote in her Open Letter to Kirby: "I can hardly express to you how offended I am by the aggressive media campaign being pursued by those who seek to hold pharmaceutical companies liable for the fact that their children are autistic, by attempting to persuade the general public (which encompasses voters and potential jurors) that most autistic people are victims of mercury poisoning."
17. Seidel's Open Letter is not addressed to Plaintiff, nor does it mention, reference, or refer to Plaintiff in any way.
18. On June 3, 2005, Plaintiff sent an email to Seidel, offering, on behalf of Generation Rescue, to sponsor a hair test for her children to determine whether they are mercury toxic. In a second email the same day, Plaintiff wrote: "[L]et's find a way to bridge the unnecessary gap between us. Respect that many of us have proof-positive our kids are heavy metal toxic. If you have proof-negative your kids are not, we can start to unravel what may be a very unfortunate case of widespread misdiagnosis making everyone confused."
19. Seidel responded to Plaintiff two days later, criticizing Plaintiff for not addressing the views expressed in her Open Letter to Kirby, and declining Plaintiff's offer to test her children for heavy metal toxicity. Seidel also accused Plaintiff of being involved in litigation. Plaintiff replied the same day, stating that he was "categorically not involved in any litigation whatsoever," and closed with the conciliatory statement that "[w]e can agree to disagree."
20. Seidel posted her entire email exchange with Plaintiff on her website. See https://www.neurodiversity.com/Plaintiff_exchange.html.
21. Plaintiff Responds to the Harassment of Generation Rescue Volunteers in the Workplace
Nearly four months after Plaintiff's June 2005 email exchange with Seidel was completed, an entirely different issue arose that captured Plaintiff's attention—and the attention of his organization, Generation Rescue. One of Generation Rescue's "Rescue Angels," the parent of an autistic child, reported that she had been stalked and harassed by an anonymous person (still unidentified) who, among other things, had taken affirmative (and anonymous) steps to jeopardize her career based on her views regarding the cause of autism. This type of workplace harassment, which far exceeds the boundaries of a legitimate debate between competing views, prompted a new (and entirely different) set of communications by Plaintiff designed to end the harassment of his parent-volunteers.
22. On September 29, 2005, a Rescue Angel named "Rescue Mom" posted a message on the Rescue Angel message board, a private message board hosted on the Yahoo! internet website for parents of children with autism who support Plaintiff's organization, Generation Rescue. The Rescue Angel message board is not open to the public; it is only available to persons invited by the forum moderator to register as an online member of the Rescue Angel Yahoo! group.
23. In her posting on the Rescue Angel message board, Rescue Mom, a schoolteacher, recounted her harrowing personal experience. Several weeks earlier, Rescue Mom had discovered some statistical information that demonstrated a dramatic increase in the incidents of autism, asthma, allergies, and other chronic problems among the children at the school where she teaches. After discovering this information, Rescue Mom had posted the statistics—no names, just the numbers—on an internet list-serve to which she belongs. In her list-serve post, Rescue Mom did not disclose her full name, her involvement in Generation Rescue, the name of the school at which she teaches, or the names of any students at the school.
24. A few weeks after she posted this information, Rescue Mom was called into her school administrator's office. An unknown individual (still unidentified) had seen her list-serve message and had undertaken a concerted effort to find out all manner of personal information about her, including her full name, the name of her autistic daughter, the medical treatments her daughter was undergoing, the school at which Rescue Mom teaches, and the names of her administrators at the school. This same person then wrote a letter to Rescue Mom's school administrators attaching a copy of her list-serve posting, detailing her association with Generation Rescue, providing the name of her autistic daughter, describing the methods that Rescue Mom is using to treat her daughter, and demanding that Rescue Mom's administrator's question her judgment as both a teacher and a mother.
25. In her post on the Rescue Angel message board, Rescue Mom recounted this alarming story of how she and her family had been stalked and how she had been targeted by unknown individuals for harassment in the workplace. Her message was intended to serve as a warning to other Rescue Angels who read the message board about the lengths to which people who disagree with Generation Rescue's beliefs will go to stop them. Recounting her experience, she advised her fellow Rescue Angels to "be careful. People are watching us. People are researching us. And people are trying to sabotage us."
26. On October 10, 2005, Plaintiff, disturbed and extremely upset after reading Rescue Mom's story, addressed the issue in a new message posted on the "Environment of Harm" message board. The Environment of Harm message board is a public message board, with a wider readership not limited to members of the "anti-vaccination" camp. In fact, participants on both sides of the vaccination debate monitor and actively post comments on the Environment of Harm message board. Plaintiff selected the Environment of Harm message board for his October 10, 2005 post in an effort to tell the "pro-vaccination" camp that stalking and harassment of his volunteers would not be tolerated.
27. Plaintiff's October 10, 2005 post on the Environment of Harm message board stated, in its entirety:
Dear [Neurodiversity] folks monitoring this list:
I have no respect for your 'movement.'You are now spending your time actively hassling our Rescue Angels. We are spending [our] time constructively engaging doctors to help our babies. If you don't like what we have to say, stop listening.We will bring the full resources of myself and Generation Rescue to stop this. We will sue you for libel and we will go after your homes and assets. My lawyers live to investigate and sue people like you.This will be your only warning.
28. Plaintiff Makes Clear That His Post Is Not Directed to Seidel
As Plaintiff suspected, members of the Neurodiversity group were reading. On October 24, 2005, Kathleen Seidel quoted part of Plaintiff's October 10, 2005 Environment of Harm post on her website, characterizing Plaintiff's post as "verbal abuse," and "breast-beating legal threats." Seidel did not quote the full text of Plaintiff's October 10, 2005 Environment of Harm posting, but she provided a link to it.
29. Plaintiff took immediate steps to correct any misimpression caused by Seidel's partial quotation of his October 10, 2005 message. Plaintiff posted again, explaining that "[c]ertain members of the ND crowd have been actively harrassing [sic] our Rescue angels in their homes and offices and crossing legal lines in doing so, this is fact and those in the wrong know who they are. If you haven't done this, the message was not intended for you." Plaintiff thus took affirmative steps, on a public message board, to make clear that his October 10, 2005 Environment of Harm message was not directed at Seidel or others who, like her, were not participating in such harassment.
30. Offit Knowingly Presents a False and Misleading Juxtaposition of the Message Board Postings in AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS In September 2008, the Press published AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS, a book authored by Offit.
31. In a chapter of AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS entitled "Behind the Mercury Curtain," Offit presents the following false and misleading account of the various message board postings from 2005:On her Web site, Seidel pleaded with Plaintiff to stop promoting a 'therapy' that had never been shown to work and was potentially dangerous. Plaintiff wrote back: 'I have no respect for your movement,' he said. 'We are spending our time constructively engaging doctors to help our babies. If you don't like what we have to say, stop listening. We will bring the full resources of myself and Generation Rescue to stop this. We will sue you for libel and will go after your home and assets. My lawyers live to investigate and sue people like you. This will be your only warning.'" AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS at 145 (Ex. 2).
32. The account presented by Offit is entirely fictionalized—and presents Plaintiff in a false and damaging light.
33. As an initial matter, Seidel never "pleaded" with Plaintiff to stop promoting a particular treatment therapy, as Offit falsely claims. In the numerous exchanges between Seidel and Plaintiff on her website (all of which were public and easily accessible to Offit prior to publication), no such "plea" was ever made. Instead, Offit made-up the false premise of Seidel's "plea" in order to place his own views on autism, and the views of those who support him, in a sympathetic and favorable light, and to portray Plaintiff's views on these issues as false and "potentially dangerous." Offit also made-up the non-existent "plea" by Seidel in an effort to portray Plaintiff's October 10, 2005 post—that which Plaintiff took pains to make clear had nothing to do with Seidel—in the most negative and threatening manner possible. Specifically, Offit misleadingly juxtaposed the made-up "plea" by Seidel with Plaintiff's October 10, 2005 Environment of Harm post in an intentional effort to depict Plaintiff as an irrational and threatening bully, and to cast Plaintiff in the most negative light possible.
34. Equally false is Offit's statement in AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS that Plaintiff "wrote back" to Seidel and directed his October 10, 2005 posting (and its threat of legal action) to Seidel. Again, the public record of the exchange (all of which were public and easily accessible to Offit prior to publication) rebuts this false notion. Plaintiff's October 10, 2005 post did not "write back" to Seidel. It appeared as a stand-alone posting on the Environment of Harm message board. Only bits and pieces of Plaintiff's October 10, 2005 Environment of Harm posting are selectively quoted on Seidel's website, and those portions were placed there by Seidel herself, who quoted them there to criticize Plaintiff. Indeed, the only way in which Plaintiff "wrote back" to Seidel was to make clear that his October 10, 2005 post was not intended for her or others who had not engaged in harassment of Rescue Angels. This is the exact opposite of the impression that Offit creates about Plaintiff in his book.
35. Offit acted with specific knowledge that he was fabricating the exchange between Seidel and Plaintiff—and he did so knowingly and intentionally. The only place in which Plaintiff's October 10, 2005 Environment of Harm posting appeared in its entirety (as it was quoted in Offit's book) was on the Environment of Harm message board. In order for Offit to quote the complete message, therefore, he would have had to review it on the Environment of Harm message board. Offit thus knew, or should have known, that the exchange described in AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS never occurred; in fact, he knowingly fabricated the entire conversation.
36. CLAIM FOR RELIEF(FALSE LIGHT INVASION OF PRIVACY)Plaintiff incorporates the preceding paragraphs 1-35 as if fully set forth herein.
37. By fictionalizing an exchange and then publishing that exchange in a book made available and sold nationwide, Defendants intentionally gave publicity to matters concerning Plaintiff that placed Plaintiff in a false light before the public.
38. The fictionalized exchange took Plaintiff's comments out of their original context (placing them instead in a conversation that did not occur) misstated his views, diminishes his credibility as a supporter, advocate, and spokesperson of Generation Rescue and its beliefs, and cast him in a disparaging light.
39. The false light in which Defendants placed Plaintiff would be considered highly offensive to a reasonable person.
40. Defendants had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the exchange authored and published by Defendants and the false light in which Plaintiff would be placed.
41. As a result of the false light in which he was placed by Defendants, Plaintiff has suffered damages in the form of embarrassment, humiliation, and damage to his reputation in an amount to be determined at trial, but in any event, no less than $65,000.
42. Defendants' false statements are still available in publications of AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS. Defendants' conduct causes Plaintiff irreparable harm, and Plaintiff is entitled to an injunction preventing Defendants' continued publication of the passage that places Plaintiff in a false light.
PRAYER FOR RELIEFWHEREFORE, Plaintiff requests judgment as follows:
1. Requiring Columbia University Press to print a retraction of the fictionalized exchange to be included in already-published copies of AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS;
2. Enjoining Columbia University Press from including the fictionalized exchange in future publications of AUTISM'S FALSE PROPHETS;
3. Compensatory damages in an amount to be determined, but in any event, no less than $65,000;
4. Pre-judgment and post-judgment interest on all damages recovered; and
5. All other relief this Court may deem just and appropriate. DATED this ___ day of February, 2009