Blogger Kathleen Seidel Fights Subpoena Seeking Information About Vaccine Litigation

We've been following the subpoena issued to Kathleen Seidel in the Citizen Media Law Project's Legal Threats Database, but thought it was time to throw our support behind Seidel and post about this egregious attempt to chill online speech.

Seidel publishes the blog Neurodiversity, where she writes about autism issues. In February 2008, she wrote about a lawsuit against various vaccine manufacturers, Sykes v. Bayer, in which the plaintiffs, Lisa and Seth Sykes, seek to link exposure to mercury to their son's autism.

Seidel's post mainly focused on developments in the lawsuit, but some of her language was critical of the Sykes and their case. For example, she indicated that the Sykes have "aggressively promoted the overwhelmingly discredited scientific hypothesis that autism is a consequence of mercury poisoning" and called their lawsuit "a hydra-headed quest for revenge, for compensation, and for judicial validation of autism causation theories roundly rejected by the greater scientific community, by numerous courts, and by a great number of individuals and families whose interests they purport to represent."

Apparently as a result of this post, the Sykes served her with a subpoena in connection with the Sykes v. Bayer lawsuit. The subpoena demands that Seidel appear for a deposition on April 30, 2008 and that she produce a breathtaking array of documents. Seidel summarizes the subpoena's demands as follows:

The subpoena commands production of "all documents pertaining to the setup, financing, running, research, maintaining the website" -- including but not limited to material mentioning the plaintiffs -- and the names of all persons "helping, paying or facilitating in any fashion" my endeavors. The subpoena demands bank statements, cancelled checks, donation records, tax returns, Freedom of Information Act requests, LexisNexis and PACER usage records. The subpoena demands copies of all of my communications concerning any issue which is included on my website, including communications with representatives of the federal government, the pharmaceutical industry, advocacy groups, non-governmental organizations, political action groups, profit or non-profit entities, journals, editorial boards, scientific boards, academic boards, medical licensing boards, any "religious groups (Muslim or otherwise), or individuals with religious affiliations," and any other "concerned individuals."

On March 31, 2008, Seidel filed a motion to quash the subpoena in federal district court in New Hampshire. (The underlying lawsuit, Sykes v. Bayer, is taking place in federal court in Virginia, but the Sykes obtained the subpoena from the district court in New Hampshire because that court has jurisdiction over Seidel, a New Hampshire resident.) The motion to quash, which Seidel wrote herself, argues that the Sykes' subpoena infringes her constitutional rights, seeks material irrelevant to the Sykes v. Bayer lawsuit, and was not issued in good faith. Of particular interest, the motion argues that the subpoena requests material protected by the "journalist's privilege."

Thankfully, the subpoena has received widespread coverage in the blogosphere (see here, here, and here, to start). But it still highlights the vulnerability many bloggers face because they simply don't have anywhere to turn when they recieve these sorts of legal threats. In fact, the more popular a blogger becomes, the more likely he or she may be the target of a legal threat. As Carolyn Elefant noted:

That Shoemaker felt compelled to intimidate Seidel with a subpoena is, as some bloggers have pointed out, a testament to her blog's influence. Says Law and More's Jane Genova: "Kathleen Seidel's blog "Neurodiversity," which deconstructs autism vaccine litigation, has influence. Why else would those she discusses have issued a subpoena for the documents used for her blog posts?" And Matt Johnston asks, "So what happens when a blogger becomes something of an expert? They get slapped with a subpoena for their research."

While Seidel is opposing this subpoena herself, she doesn't lack for supporters. We're behind you Kathleen. Keep up the fight.

(You can follow further developments in the case in our Legal Threats Database entry: Sykes v. Seidel.)


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