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A Legal Development

August 20, 2007, 10:09 PM

I've said on previous occasions that Daylight Atheism is a weblog devoted to commentary and analysis, not breaking news. However, I've heard of a case sufficiently noteworthy that I think it merits an exception.

Last month, the indomitable P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula posted a review of Stuart Pivar's book Lifecode, which purports to explain the embryonic development of organisms through topological manipulation of an initially fluid form. Myers' review, though sympathetic to the principles espoused, was negative on balance:

I am thoroughly unconvinced, and am unimpressed with the unscientific and fabulously concocted imagery of the book.

After the initial review was posted, Pivar wrote in to object vociferously, and promised a second, revised edition which would address these criticisms. This was delivered, and Myers read it and posted a second review, which was similarly unfavorable.

Pivar's response, apparently, was to sue P.Z. Myers and Seed Media (publisher of ScienceBlogs.com, which includes Pharyngula) for "assault, libel and slander".

I haven't yet seen comments about this lawsuit on Pharyngula or on any of the other Science Blogs sites. Quite possibly, as defendants in the suit, they're required to keep quiet about it. I came across this story through two other, independent blogs, Boing Boing and SciAm Observations.

I am not a lawyer, but I strongly suspect this suit will be dismissed immediately if it ever makes it to court. I don't know what specific grounds Pivar is alleging, but in the United States of America, book reviews do not lose their First Amendment protection because they are negative, not even if the author's feelings are hurt. Indeed, the very purpose of the First Amendment is to protect speech that others may find disturbing or upsetting, but that is part of the free interchange of ideas and opinion that is vital to a healthy, democratic society. The bar for slander and libel is deliberately set high, requiring the plaintiff to show that the defendant made false statements and did so either with knowledge of, or reckless disregard for, their falsity, and is especially high in cases like this one where the post was explicitly intended as a review and critique. (See the Electronic Frontier Foundation's rundown.)

If Pivar won his lawsuit, unlikely as I believe that to be, it would have a chilling effect on book reviews on the Internet and beyond. Seemingly any negative review that wounds the author's feelings might be grounds for a lawsuit. Hopefully, the suit will be dropped soon, but if not, I hope Seed Media is willing to fight for the free-speech rights of its bloggers. I'll post updates on this story as they become available.


A Legal Development

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