Southern Poverty Law Center, mission creep, men’s rights, feminism…

Most of my posts only take me a few moments to mentally organize. Of course I will update and edit and do all the things consistent with quality writing, but I usually have a pretty good idea of how I want to lay things out before I even start. This is not one of those posts. If everything that follows here comes across as a bit of a hodge-podge, I guess you’ll know why.

First thing is first: The Southern Poverty Law Center has put together a list of a number of websites which are devoted to men’s rights. See here. Most of the sites, if not all of them, are pretty impossible to defend in their entirety. Some of them do express popular views at times, but they also express views which should be offensive to any intelligent person. Others seem to be devoted to nothing more than hating women. For example, on the site Boycott American Women is this:

This site’s mission statement describes American women as “generally immature, selfish, extremely arrogant and self-centered, mentally unstable, irresponsible and highly unchaste. The behavior of most American women is utterly disgusting.”

That is more ridiculous than the time PZ called the majority of young men “superficial” and “cartoonish”. Broad generalizations like those of Boycott and PZ are just stupid. No reasonable person can really defend any of that garbage; it’s all emotionally based bitterness.

All that said, I agree with Marc Randazza when he says the SPLC has some mission creep going on here. I realize a major point of the organization is to shine a light on hate groups, but that doesn’t really seem to be the goal here. It usually focuses on groups that, ya know, matter. All it’s doing here is targeting some minor websites and bloggers that appeal to a dickish Internet crowd. If that’s where they want to focus their efforts, then I don’t see why they aren’t combing YouTube comments.

While I would like to leave the implication that I became aware of the SPLC’s blacklist of websites through Mr. Randazza, I have to admit I actually came across it on PZ’s site first. I stopped reading Pharyngula quite some time ago, but I recently told Nate that I bet PZ would have the most recent xkcd cartoon up within a day. I was right. So in checking for his post about the cartoon, I also saw his post on the SPLC; I decided to check out the comments. Once again, my mental layout for where I want to go is all hodge-podgey, so I will start with this post from user omnicrom:

The really irritating thing for me is that the MRA [Men’s Rights Activists] have to an extent made “Feminism” a dirty word. And it really shouldn’t be. Feminism except in ugly extreme cases way in the outliers is about making Men and Women equal. So the really disgusting thing about the MRA is that they aren’t really reacting to Misandry (and REAL misandry should be called out), they’re trying to keep Women less than Men. No matter what they say the MRA movement is rotten to its very core, and its poison makes people raise eyebrows when I as a man say that I’m a feminist.

First of all, I think the majority of the problems with feminism come from feminists themselves. omnicrom is right when he says feminism is about making men and women equal, but feminists often miss that point, playing a shell game. Take my run-in with Suzanne Franks, aka Thus Spake Zuska. I disagreed that a picture of two fat women next to an article about fat women and healthcare was sexist. For that disagreement I was immediately labeled a number of derogatory things; because I did not buy into the majority view of a particular group of feminists wholesale, I was seen as being sexist. In other words, feminists give feminism a bad name when they play shell games.

Second, polemics beget polemics. Some of the extreme views of some feminists (such as Franks and PZ) invite polarization. When we have people running around attacking men in generalities and calling people sexist for the least of reasons, we should expect to see some extreme reactions in at least some people. Let’s take one of the issues mentioned by a few of the blacklisted websites: rape accusations. The men’s rights sites point out that men are considered guilty by default when they get accused of rape. (Some go further and stupidly accuse women of commonly using the cry of rape to falsely attack men.) The feminist reaction is to declare, at the least, sexism. At the most, a pro-rape mentality is claimed. Neither side is being fair. It is obviously dangerous to go so far as to presume a woman is lying when says she has been raped. Yet, on the other hand, some people do lie about that sort of thing. Take the Duke Lacrosse scandal. I bet there are at least a few people who read that now and think, “Oh, that’s the case where those Duke players raped that stripper.” The reality, though, is that she lied, the lead prosecutor was disbarred and sent to jail, and the players are still seeking damages. There is room for admitting that this sort of thing happens without also saying that women are conniving liars who are out to get men.

There is a lot about feminism that I like. Before I found myself engaged in the topic, there were a lot of things I did not realize that I do now. I’m happy and grateful for that. However, I find myself highly disenchanted by certain actions and tactics of its adherents. Take the SPLC’s blacklist. It’s a collection of a few minor websites that express a lot of extreme views, but look at how it is being used. People who favor men’s rights are being lumped in with a bunch of assholes – it’s dishonest. I don’t want to sit here and pretend like men have a hard time of it comparatively; I’m not about to claim men are an oppressed group and we need to make sure we do everything we can as a society to promote men. I’m not going to say any of that because, believe it or not, I get it. I get that men, generally speaking, have it easier than women. That said, for those who favor government assistance directed at struggling women, isn’t it also reasonable to favor assistance that is directed towards struggling men? For instance, young men were hit especially hard by the recession. Would it be sexist to do something to help the men who lost their jobs in, say, construction? I don’t think so, but it’s almost impossible to argue that to some feminists because they’ll immediately resort to the “MRA” (Men’s Rights Activist) label, shutting down discussion and lumping reasonable men in with the cherry-picked bullshit the SPLC has put together.

I want to wrap this up in a succinct way, so here it goes: The problem with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s blacklist and a number of feminists is that they use polemics to shut down discussion. That is, they attempt to connect anyone who disagrees with particular claims of feminism with people who make outlandish claims about women. The effect is that no one wants to be associated with the dregs of society, so people tend to stay away from even reasonable positions if those positions overlap with the views of said dregs. To compound the issue, some of the outlandish claims are a product of the polemic-promotion seen all too often in feminism. All this adds up to undermine the goals of feminists and create unnecessary division.

Christopher Maloney and the lawsuit that almost was

Christopher Maloney, Q.E. - Quack Extraordinaire. via

We all know Christopher Maloney by now. He is the quack who, in conjunction with Andreas Moritz, worked to get my site shut down in February 2010. They were both upset that I had called them quacks, among a variety of other derogatory names, so they put forth their best efforts and succeeded in quieting FTSOS for 6 days. Of course, the Internet came to the rescue, worsening their lives while making the world a safer place. Once FTSOS came back online, things should have died down given a little bit of time. But of course, that didn’t happen. And it was their fault.

Moritz had little chirps here and there, but he eventually slunk away. Maloney, on the other hand, went on a crusade. He created a series of pages on his site well after the fact, responded to every critical post he could find in the world, and even started stirring the pot in threads on PZ’s site that had nothing to do with him. Then, eight months after the fact, he sent PZ a cease and desist notice. Of course, that just made things worse for him. A few months later, I got a similar notice. Following PZ’s lead, I uploaded the notice, called Maloney a quack, and went on with my day.

What did I mean then, and what do I mean now, by saying Christopher Maloney is a quack? Simply this: I mean that Christopher Maloney openly and aggressively promotes naturopathy, a bogus and unscientific ‘discipline’. Regrettably, it’s a bogus and unscientific discipline that the State of Maine sees fit to license. That’s as embarrassing as if Maine licensed astrologers. I’ve repeatedly written about why naturopathy is bunk, and why Christopher Maloney’s advocacy of it is quackery. As I’ve specifically said before, I’m sure Christopher Maloney is qualified in the eyes of the State of Maine to practice naturopathy – it’s just appalling that the state endorses such things, and appalling that Maloney promotes such bunk.

Move forward several more months and I get a second letter delivered to me. This one is actually threatening a lawsuit. (In fact, its vague wording led me to believe that it had actually been filed, but that was not the case. See a pdf of the lawsuit here.) I needed a lawyer.

Enter Ken White of Brown, White, & Newhouse, LLP and the law blog Popehat.

Like the call for Batman but with fewer gadgets and more resultant paperwork. Neat, though.

I contacted Ken because, while I could amply respond to the logical mistakes and factual errors that were strewn throughout the lawsuit for the sake of a blog post, I am not a lawyer. I don’t know the actual legal procedures involved, nor would it be prudent for me to defend myself alone anyway. Originally I was only seeking Ken’s help to put me in touch with people who could help me at reduced rates – I’m responsible with my money, but that doesn’t mean I have it laying around for lawyer fees – but to my delight, he offered his services pro bono.

Ken also recruited prominent First Amendment lawyer Marc Randazza. (I dare say, the man has more than a little kick and a little zest to his words. I love it.) I also sought out local counsel in case push came to shove and Maloney actually filed suit; Ken and Marc are both located out of state, so a Maine-based lawyer was necessary. I found and secured the help of Jed Davis, a Princeton and Yale man, of Mitchell & Davis. Needless to say, I had a heck of a team.

So let’s get the heart of the matter. Maloney and his lawyer/wife/state representative Maeghan Maloney sent me a lawsuit, ready to be filed with the courts, claiming I had committed libel and defamed Christopher. When I saw this, I thought the heart of the matter would be that either 1) I have called him a quack or 2) I have said he is not a doctor by scientific standards, but that there have been times when I haven’t explicitly spelled every bit of that out (i.e., I just left it at saying he isn’t a doctor). Number one is obviously a false premise for a libel suit. As Ken wrote in a post about Maloney’s threat to PZ, the term “quack” is protected opinion under the First Amendment in the way I used it. Number two, which I suppose would have been their strongest route, would have been dismissible on grounds that it ignores the context of FTSOS and the fact that I have acknowledged that Maloney is a “doctor” by Maine state standards in plenty of places.

No Habla Español

So which was it? Well, the first one. Sort of. See, the Maloneys were confused. While Maeghan did display a tremendously awful understanding of the law, arguing that the term “quack” is not protected because it implies her husband is unqualified to be a naturopath (it doesn’t, and I’m sure he is qualified to be a naturopath; it doesn’t take much to be a quack, after all), she and her husband also argued that I had been harassing the guy for 2 years. Two straight years. How is that, you ask? Well, first we need to get a fundamental misunderstanding of the Internet under our belts.

They were under the impression that the Tag Cloud widget I had on the side of FTSOS was something I maintained and tended to every day. They believed it was something I was actively messing with in order to manipulate Google searches for “Christopher Maloney Maine” under 24 hour searches. (It took forever to get them to specify that they were talking about 24 hour searches, not regular searches.) Of course, this is silly. A Tag Cloud is an automated feature common to virtually all blogs, including Maloney’s. (I checked his theme and it is an option for him.) Moreover, with or without the widget, a regular Google search showed a whole host of sites, some with and some without it, before mine.

It seems serendipitous that this happens to be a duck.

As it turns out, the widget was probably affecting 24 hour searches. But not in the way the Maloneys thought. If I made a post and someone searched “Christopher Maloney Maine” with the quotations, my blog with that new post would show up. But of course, that post had nothing to do with Maloney. In fact, a search of his name will show that I have only written about him three times this entire year before today. It was delusional of them to believe I was obsessing over the quack every day for two years straight. They simply did not understand the technology at hand. And despite this, it was the primary premise for their lawsuit (making their case more about harassment than defamation, but whatever – they were wrong either way).

But let’s get down to the actual law aspects. As I said, they were claiming that by calling Maloney a quack, I was implying that he was unfit to practice naturopathy under his licensure. Since the state of Maine says otherwise, and since I don’t have any basis for disagreeing, that would be a false statement on my part. If the law worked in weird and inconsistent ways like this, they might have a case. But as a simple Google search would have shown them, they didn’t know what they were talking about. From Ken’s post:

I wonder whether, before sending her feckless and thuggish missive, Meaghan Maloney researched how courts have treated the word “quack” in defamation cases. I did. It took me about five minutes to learn that multiple courts in multiple states in multiple decades have found that calling someone a “quack” is protected opinion and not subject to a defamation suit, particularly when the context shows that it is hyperbole. Yiamouyiannis v. Thompson, 764 S.W.2d 338 (TX 1989) (calling an opponent of flouridation and vaccines a “quack” was pure opinion protected by the First Amendment); Dowling v. Livingstone, 108 Mich. 321 (1896) (it was opinion, not defamation, to refer to an anti-immigration scheme as a “quack remedy”); Gonzalez v Gray, 69 F.Supp.2d 561 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) (husband’s claim that his wife had been having “sex with a quack” was opinion, not defamation against the doctor); Spelson v. CBS, INC., 581 F.Supp. 1195 (N.D. IL 1984) (statement that “nutritionist” treating cancer patients with “vitamins, minerals, and extracts of raw animal organs” was a “cancer quack” was protected opinion). In the rare cases where courts have not protected terms like “quack,” they were used in a context specifically suggesting untrue facts. See, e.g., Nasr v. Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, 632 F.Supp.1024 (E.D. IL 1986) (though calling a doctor a “quack” has been found to be protected opinion, when used in manner suggesting false underlying facts, it was actionable). Courts have made similar findings regarding other epithets, including “charlatan.” Ernst v. Basset, 521 So.2d 414 (La. 1988) (“charlatan” was non-actionable statement of opinion).

In other words, there is at least 125 years worth of case law on not merely libel/defamation cases, but on libel/defamation cases specifically dealing with the word “quack”.

I gather some might consider it bad form to quote any of the communications had amongst the lawyers involved, so I will only paraphrase the wonderfulness of our response. Essentially, it was 10 pages of this: “No, fuck you, and if you sue, we’ll file an Anti-SLAPP motion, seeking attorney fees, and maybe sue you and your lawyer for malicious prosecution.” And while the lawyers were at it, I was ready to make this a public spectacle all over again. I had already secured a promise of help from Simon Singh. It would only have been a matter of hours before the Internet was once again buzzing with “Christopher Maloney is a quack”.

So the result? Well, Maloney wanted a settlement which stipulated that I would remove all tags of him from FTSOS, that I wouldn’t speak of him again in practically any writing, that I would delete all my past writings about him, and that I would pay his attorney fees incurred to this point. There was never any chance of me signing away my rights like that. In fact, there was a deadline placed on the attached agreement which I fully ignored before I was even able to obtain legal assistance. I may not know all the procedures involved, but I know I like my First Amendment rights. (I admit, though, it was tempting to find out just what it was Maloney’s wife had charged him for fees.) But once I did obtain assistance, I realized the value of throwing out a minor gesture of good will to avoid the nuisance of litigation. I know, I know. It’s so unlike me. Actually, I did try to just completely say no to the idea. A man who threatens me with a frivolous lawsuit deserves nothing.

But as I said, I am not a lawyer.

The best course of action, I came to understand, would be to avoid litigation all together. While all the case law and common sense is on my side, and while we would almost certainly prevail in both fighting the lawsuit and our subsequent malicious prosecution suit, the law is an uncertain thing. A judge unimpressed by a young-looking 20-something who has a couple of high-priced out of state lawyers may decide a (lawless) lesson needs to be taught. It’s unlikely, but certainly possible. Moreover, while these lawyers are generally high priced (at least in my world), they were doing the work pro-bono. They were there to assist me whatever my decision, but if a gesture of good will would get all of this put behind me while I still retained all my rights, then it would save everyone a lot of trouble.

I find it entertaining that this image even exists.

So the gesture of good will. Well, as I said, the Maloneys believed the Tag Cloud was something I was messing around with every day for the sake of tormenting some guy I’d never met (despite his invitation and subsequent refusal to actually meet in person). It wasn’t, but if that’s what they believed, then I decided to just offer to take it down. But nothing more. The thing really meant nothing to me, frankly, so it was no loss, and it was actually a reasonable offer. I clean up my site a bit and retain every single one of my rights. If that’s all it was going to take to make this nuisance go away, then great.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that straight forward.

At our offering of the removal, Maloney and Maloney came back with settlements that included ridiculous things like the effective silencing I mentioned (removing all tags, never writing of him again, etc). At one point they wanted to create a system where a third party arbitrator would be used to settle any future disagreements – and the costs of all that would be split. We refused each time. Eventually things came to a clear impasse. This was all being done under a tolling agreement in the first place, and that was about to expire. The Maloneys wanted to extend the agreement and continue negotiations, but there was no point. I would do no more than remove an inconsequential widget from my blog. If that wasn’t good enough, they were more than welcomed to sue. It would have been a delight to watch the Internet light up over an alt-med ‘doctor’ and his elected wife suing a college student over what amounted to a little name calling. My attorneys made it plain that we were locked and loaded and ready to fight.

So the Maloneys caved.

I agreed to take down the widget, but every single post about Christopher Maloney, every single tag of Christopher Maloney, and every single opinion I have ever expressed about Christopher Maloney remains. And none of it is going anywhere.

Ultimately, this is a good outcome. Sure, the ideal would be a big middle finger and nothing more, but this has all taken a bigger toll on me and my time than I thought it would. I work overnights and go to school full-time. My sleep schedule is just awful and my courses are not simple. The spring is shaping up to be even more difficult. My instincts tell me to be as pugnacious as always, but my preference for doing well in organic chemistry is stronger. I’m happy with the result, and I can’t thank Ken, Marc, and Jed enough.

P.s., Christopher Maloney is a quack.