The Threat of Defamation

8 10 2008

An Australian poster going by the name of AndyD on the JREF forums has recently had a run in with Ezio De Angelis, a self described psychic medium who was a finalist in the recent television series The One. This show pitted various psychics against each other in a showdown to determine who was Australia’s top psychic.

AndyD edited and posted on Youtube a satirical video of De Angelis conducting a psychic reading from ‘The One’. The principal edits were of the sitter providing many more negative answers than what was shown and the rationale of the video was to highlight the number of misses that had made their way to the cutting room floor during the editing process for the episode.

In late September De Angelis contacted AndyD and told him:

“This video is part of a pending Defamation and compensation action. It has already been removed from Bad Psychics.Com as part of this legal process.

In order to ensure that you are not implicit in the litigation you are required to remove the video and commentary immediately.”

This threat of legal action upset AndyD sufficiently to not only remove the video from Youtube, but also remove half of his posts on his blog. He has since reinstated most of the posts, but the video has not been put back on Youtube.

Without the benefit of viewing the video, it is difficult to judge if it is actually defamatory (and anyway I am no lawyer), but this is a common tactic attempted by some of the more high profile psychics to have blogs, articles, and websites that are critical of them removed from the Internet. Uri Geller is notorious for his litigation and famously filed action against Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and James Randi which inadvertently resulted in James Randi and CSICOP parting ways.

Threats of defamation are not restricted to those who dabble in the supernatural world, but also in pseudoscientific realms such as the recent threat of legal action made by New Zealand Chiropractic Association against the New Zealand Medical Journal.

For those sceptics who have an Internet presence, they are open to the threat of litigation (whether it has a basis or not) and for most people the prospect of having the hassle and expense of a civil hearing is sufficient to give in to such threats.

In New Zealand the Defamation Act 1992 provides  are two defenses that can be used, the first is that the defamatory statement is the truth, which on the face of it seems straight forward. However, the burden of proof lies on the person making the statement to show that it is true. The second defense is that it is an honestly held opinion. With this defense, the facts presented must be correct and it must be clear that it is the personal opinion of the person making the statement. Furthermore, the opinion must be genuinely held.

This should not be taken as legal advice and if you are the subject of legal action then make sure that you get advice from a suitably qualified solicitor.

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3 responses

5 11 2008
AndyD

Hi, I just found as a result of looking through your site after following the latest Sylvia Browne link.

I do not believe anything in the video was defamatory. It was barely negative. I just added a minute of the sitter saying “no” to a bunch more questions that were shown (I cut and pasted him asking questions from elsewhere and re-used her various “no” answers and raised eyebrows from the first part of what was shown.). Rove McManus had ridiculed the very same reading a few week’s earlier and I’d argue his review was more scathing than mine – and more widely seen. The “Rove” video was still on Youtube (and Aus BadPsychics?) last time I checked.

The reason for complying was exactly as you suggest – practicality. I have no desire to test a defamation defence in court if it should proceed to that. I’ve been doing the skeptical activist thing for around 6 months so I’ve a lot of experience to gain yet before I get cocky.

I’m glad you blogged this but am disappointed at the lack of response. I feel one area where we seriously lack guidance from more experienced skeptics is in the area of law. We do what we do for free, out of a sense of obligation perhaps, yet we put ourselves in the firing line when we mention real people rather than just ideas or generic industries.

I’m always amazed by the bravado of some skeptics who claim to welcome legal threats with open arms (the latest “Stop Sylvia Browne” fiasco being a prime example). I don’t know to what extent this bravado comes from legal knowledge/advice, friends in high places, a presumption of sabre rattling, unlimited funds, naivete, sheer, unadulterated guts… ?

I’d love to have the community, especially the local (Aus) community, discuss this in depth but it doesn’t seem to want to happen. On the face of it, truth and opinion may well count as defences here in Oz too but “on the face of it” is hardly enough without some clear advice or experience. I did blog some of my thoughts in this area at skepticism and the law.

Thanks.

5 11 2008
AndyD

Forgive my fractured typing in my first comment 🙂

I should add that the video made it clear that “here’s what might have happened” during the cut scenes where no hits were registered.

6 11 2008
Christiaan

Thanks for the feedback and the update AndyD. Strangely enough a comment left by ‘Mac’ in the Stop Boris Kreiman article has a veiled threat of legal action.

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