If truth is a complete defense to a defamation action, what about “scientific truth”? Are scientific findings “facts” that can form the basis of a defamation action if a particular scientist contends they are inaccurate? If so, how much of a consensus is required before a matter of scientific inquiry can be considered “settled” and thus a matter of established fact? Anti-vaxxers have filed a number of defamation actions around the country against media outlets accusing them of spreading misinformation. Few (if any) have been successful. The consensus among the courts appears to be that defamation actions are not an appropriate means of addressing arguments over unsettled questions over which vaccines treat disease most effectively. It’s not so much a matter of whether matters of scientific inquiry should be regarded as facts or opinions but of the practical reality that academic questions on complex scientific topics just aren’t the sort of thing courts or juries are equipped to resolve as definitively true or false. Courts are interested in protecting First Amendment rights, not in picking sides in a scientific debate.
Case in point: Dr. Peter A. McCullough v. Gannett Company, filed earlier this year in the Eastern District of Virginia. Dr. Peter McCullough is a cardiologist and epidemiologist who has been a vocal critic of the medical response to the COVID-19 crisis. According to his complaint, he is “considered one of the world’s leading experts on COVID-19.” The Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise, an Oklahoma newspaper owned by Gannett Company, ran a story in October 2021 about an upcoming appearance Dr. McCullough was to make at a local community center. The article contains several quotes from a Dr. Anuj Malik, an infectious disease physician who strongly disagreed with Dr. McCullough’s views on the effectiveness of the COVID vaccine. Dr. McCullough claimed the following statements attributed to Dr. Malik were defamatory: Continue reading