I got sued for $3 Million by a religious cult 30


In December 2011 I was shocked to open the post and discover that I had been served with a Statement of Claim issued by a Canadian court. I was being sued for $3 million, not for something I had personally written, but for an anonymous comment posted by somebody else on my blog.

Was this truly credible, could a UK citizen living in the UK actually be sued from a Canadian court for a comment posted on a blog hosted by a US-based ISP. The short answer to that is yes, it was not only a genuine libel suit, but a default judgement issued by a Canadian court was enforceable in the UK. Because of the reciprocal arrangements that currently exist between the UK and Canada I faced being wiped out financially, not for something I had personally written, but simply because, like thousands of others, I ran a blog (this one in fact) that enabled others to post comments. Doing nothing was not an option.

What happened was indeed horrendous, but by looking back after having resolved it all I can now appreciate that it was in many ways self-inflicted and could have been avoided if I had been a bit wiser. If you blog, then you can now learn from my experience and hopefully avoid the considerable degree of stress that incidents such as this can generate.

I gave a talk about all this at TAM this year on “How to Avoid being sued if you blog”, and so that talk has now been published by the JREF a couple of days ago … here it is. Following it, I have included some extended notes below as well that highlight what I did wrong so that you may learn from my mistakes.

How to Avoid getting sued if you Blog – Where I went wrong

It all started back in April 2011 when I posted an article about Sai Baba, the Indian charlatan, and explained how he used a few magic tricks and some truly outrageous claims to glean a vast fortune over many decades. I carefully laid out the facts and also linked to the evidence.

http://www.skeptical-science.com/critical-thinking/sai-baba/

It generated a few comments, some vigorously defending their guru and others outraged by the outright fraud and deceit. However, one specific comment, started out, “I have heard that there are many con men purporting to be the guru sai baba …”, and then proceeded to describe a similar degree of fraud being conducted by a Canadian based copycat who performed the same tricks and lived a rather lavish lifestyle as a result, and linked to the website for their cult.

A couple of weeks after the posting of the comment I received a rather bizarre and badly worded email of complaint. I was advised that the comment linked to a website that did not belong to the commenter, that it contained slander and if I did not cooperate, they would “be filling criminal charges”. It came from an anonymous hotmail account

Faced with an unpalatable bullying tone from what appeared to be a complete crank, I wrote a fairly sarcastic reply in which I pointed out that the term they most probably wanted was libel and not slander, that linking to other websites was not illegal, and that a more civil less threatening tone would be appreciated. They promptly replied explaining that they were not threatening me, but if I did not cooperate they would get their legal representative involved, and then signed off with “Best Regards”.

My immediate reaction was to wonder who signs threatening letters with ‘Best Regards’, and so my second reply sliced and diced the entire daft dialog point by point. The thought that it might be a prank also crossed my mind.

Mistake Number 1: I failed to be polite and professional.

I should have kept cool, maintained a polite friendly dialog, and fielded some simple questions such as the following in my initial reply:

  • I need to verify who you are, how can I do that?
  • How can I contact you, a hotmail account is too anonymous?
  • What exactly is your interest here?
  • What exactly is your concern?

I suspect that if I had done so then I might never have been sued.

If you are a blogger, then you should not only publish a policy regarding how you handle complaints, but you should perhaps also consider having a standard generic form letter that you can utilize whenever you receive complaints. A standard policy can be as simple as a paragraph within your “About” section that reads:

If you have a concern about any posting or comment being factually incorrect, please contact us. Please provide details of who you are, how we can contact you, what your interest is, and what your concern is. If something has been written that is factually incorrect, it will be addressed. Anonymous complaints will be ignored.

After my second highly sarcastic rebuttal there was no further dialog, but I did observe one comment appear that hammered the comment, so assumed that the anonymous complainant had simply decided to blow off a bit of steam in that manner and that would be that.

In was not to be, a few months later in October I received a hand delivered letter at my home address written by a Toronto based lawyer. It was a demand that I reveal who the commenter was and that I should also remove the comment, and yes more threats, because if I did not comply they would sue.

Mistake Number 2: I foolishly assumed that nobody would be daft enough to sue over one comment, and that it was simply a bluff, so I simply ignored it.

Libel is a very expensive process, and even if you win, the amount you could potentially win will often not cover your costs, so why would anybody be insane enough to sue over one fairly mild comment.

You should never ever ignore such letters. A better strategy would have been to take the comment down and then enter into a dialog. If a claim is indeed without merit and there is factual evidence to verify what is being said, then you can make a decision about posting it back up, or not. The other observation is that while I might indeed have fooled myself into thinking I was defending free speech, I was in fact only defending an anonymous comment. I should have stopped and taken a moment to think it through, I had no idea who the commenter was, nor did I even know at the time if it was factually correct, so doing nothing in that context was crazy.

Having ignored the letter, I had fooled myself into thinking that nothing more would happen. Unfortunately, in early December I was proven quite wrong; I received the statement of claim issued by the Toronto court suing me for $3 Million. Could I possibly make things any worse for myself? Tragically yes.

Mistake Number 3: I should have taken proper legal guidance and should not have attempted to write my own statement of defence.

Yes, I was crazy enough to do that. I did get a bit of help polishing the language, but officially I represented myself. As later observed by an experienced and wise libel lawyer, defending from a position of strength often motivates those attacking to simply back off. However, I presented myself as a small isolated inexperienced shrimp and so they proceeded to eat me for lunch. In response to the statement of defence they issued a reply that demonstrated that I had made a bit of a hash of it all.

In addition to proper legal guidance, I would also have benefited from digging into the facts prior to writing the statement of defence. It was only later that I discovered that they had in fact lied within their original statement of claim, and that there was factual information in the public domain to verify this.

Why no lawyer? Well, I did initially try but quickly ran into demands for $500 per hour from Canadian lawyers. The strategy was wrong, I should have tapped into the sceptical network and looked for friendly folks willing to guide and assist and perhaps also point me in the direction of any who might be willing to help. In fact this is how it was finally resolved. Rather late in the day, I opened a thread on the JREF form, briefly explained what had happened and asked for help and suggestions. The very best replies were several that pointed me in the direction of a very nice sceptically inclined lawyer in Canada called Colleen Robertshaw who was not only active within the JREF forum, but was also very willing to assist. As a government employee, she could not represent me, but after reviewing all the paperwork guided me in the right direction and also started using her network to find a libel lawyer.

It was at about this point that I received a “Request to Admit” (that is a procedural form that simply asks for the confirmation of facts such as what was posted when, it was not actually asking for a confession). Colleen advised that I should inform them that I would be retaining counsel and would reply in due course. Much to my surprise the immediate response that came back from the plaintiffs was an offer. If I agreed to remove the comment and not post it back up, they would not seek any damages or costs.

How should I respond?

If I was defending something I had written, if it was in the public interest to do so, and I was sure of the facts, then and only then would it be worth defending. However, since I could tick none of those boxes, any attempt to pursue this any further would have been both pointless and crazy, so I happily accepted.

Also, the observation that the demonstration of a position of strength often causes claimants to back off proved to be correct, because the moment I declared my intent to retain proper counsel, they rapidly backed away.

Guidance

Looking back on it all, and having thought about what happened, what guidance could I possibly give to my slightly younger but rather foolish self? Well how about …

  1. Maintain a clear policy on your blog regarding complaints. This makes it abundantly clear that real concerns will not only be addressed, but also outlines the steps anybody can follow for a successful outcome.
  2. Be Polite and professional in all interactions when you receive complaints and respond with a standard form letter. If you do end up in court then all such dialogues will be part of the case. You might indeed feel that your responses are private whispers, but they can potentially end up in the spotlight.
  3. Don’t ignore legal letters, doing so has consequences.
  4. If asked to take a posting or a comment down and it appear to be a reasonable request from an identifiable individual who has a specific interest, then take it down. You can then check the facts. If the complaint has no merit, you can simply post the item back up if it is appropriate to do so.
  5. Take Independent Guidance. It is easy to make assumptions or even to allow your emotions to cloud your judgement, so always seek impartial guidance.
  6. Don’t try to fix it yourself. Nobody would seriously consider DIY heart surgery, so don’t try the same when it comes to the law, get professional help.
  7. Network. There are many friendly skeptics out there willing to help and guide you if you get into trouble, there is no need to plough on in complete isolation.

None of the above in any way guarantees that you will never be sued. However, it will put you in a far better position and will also help you to avoid the frivolous and utterly pointless. If you do indeed blog about contentious issues then being sued remains a possibility because there will be times when it is wholly appropriate to take a stand against outright fraud and deceit. But be aware, it is highly stressful, so if at all possible, it is best avoided.

As observed by Simon Singh …

I reckon I have spent 44 solid weeks on the libel action spread across two years.   I am in the very fortunate position of having no employees, being a freelancer, having financial resources and having a very supportive wife. In any other circumstance, I cannot imagine fighting a libel action because of the enormous sacrifices involved. – Simon Singh

So who really won?

Some feel that I should have counter sued, but I feel that not only does the cost involved in doing so not justify that, the issue did not either, I had no appetite to defend an anonymous comment I did not write myself. So did they win? Well, it may indeed have cost me a lot of stress, but it was perhaps self-inflicted;  financially it only cost me £8 (postage). In contrast, it cost these complete religious nutters $50,000.


Leave a Reply

30 thoughts on “I got sued for $3 Million by a religious cult

  • echwa

    Hi Dave,

    So glad to learn you were able to find an exit from this. Until reading this post I was unaware of the potential for libel to impact on a blog owner. I will be saving this advice.

  • sentientmachine

    Yes not lawyering up when you get legal papers in the mail, and not counter suing was a big deal. You could have sued them for pain, stress and suffering. Thank you for costing these religious nutters 50,000. Making the odds they will con someone again a little less when they go for another witch hunt.

  • Randy

    I’m dismayed that my country thinks it can and should police the internet for comments made about Canadian residents, where such speech didn’t even happen in Canada. But I’m glad to read the final score.

  • Orion Blastar

    Sad to hear you go through this. Good advice for bloggers. I had libel written about me but I am too poor to sue over it. Someone wrote nasty untrue things about me on a Google Group that someone abandoned.

    Ah well the religious nutters in this case had loads of cash and shark-like lawyers.

  • Matt Steet

    Do you feel like you’re taking a risk by calling a cult a cult? I feel it could be difficult to defend your statement in court unless the cult is clearly outside the bounds of the main stream religions (since no one wants to think their religion is a cult).

  • NuclearShadow

    If it was possible for you to actually lose in court based off of a anonymous comment of a person you had no connection to then what is stopping people and organizations from writing such about themselves and then suing? As a example let’s say you made a article about Scientology and how you disagree with some of their practices but remained completely civil through out. Someone from the Church of Scientology could be appointed to search for online criticisms and simply post a libel comment even in the most mildest of ways and have the Church of Scientology sue you. Did they really have a chance to win?

    This just seems like a awful way to be used to create massive censorship. Just imagine every website that has a commenting section or a open forum that could be effected. Also I totally hope the Church of Scientology doesn’t sue you for me making them as the hypothetical example above.

  • Oelsen

    Suddenly, I am very, very glad I live in a country with a Germanic Roman Law. I.e.: an area that takes 30 years longer to submit to international bogus law that renders any citizen into a world slave of every messed up law system.

  • Neverknown A Name

    Another method of avoiding lawsuit: base your blog in the United States where this sort of speech is legally protected and the courts are on your side in libel cases by default.

    • TheMilkMan

      Good grief, I would hate to see what could happen if those religious cult Christians, Jews, and Mus… (don’t worry the big three have developed tough skin) here in the US figured out they could start suing the UK through Canada about what a kid in the US typed. I am very sorry this happened to you, the big bullies. You did right by not suing them back though, though you would have gained money, you would have lost more of your humanity, time, and energy.

    • tsotha

      I thought he said the blog was hosted in the US?

      In any event, yes, it’s harder to sue for libel in US courts. But if you don’t go to court or send a representative to defend yourself, the same thing will happen – the plaintiff will get a default judgement. You can’t just ignore this kind of stuff.

      Though I have to say I find it outrageous a citizen of the UK can be sued in Canada and be expected to pay. I hope the US has no such reciprocal agreement.

  • Anonymous

    $50,000 sounds like a small price to pay to get to keep milking your flock. Also you shouldn’t you mention allowing anonymous commenters? Those guys are douche bags

  • Joey H

    Thank you for sharing your experience; I am sorry you had to go through it. This is good information for “non-skeptics” as well.

  • duglarri

    There’s one thing that I think is significant about your story, and the Canadian involvement in it- although this case might have gone before a Canadian court, what you faced was only a claim; there’s no reason to think that a Canadian judge was going to rule in favour of this group, and their $3 million claim is clearly absurd. Libel is about reputation, and unless the complainant could show that the comment in question was viewed by millions of people- step one- and led to monetary loss- step two- there’s no economic loss to compensate, which is the point of libel.

    The second strike would be the fact that the blog is based in England. Jurisdiction isn’t at all a settled issue around here. But I think a judge in either a Provincial or Federal court would have tossed this out immediately. Police British blogs? What a pandora’s box that would open.

    I suspect that this claim would have been quickly hustled out of court if it had come up as a total waste of the court’s time.

    Canadian courts are not in the habit of policing the internet across the globe.

  • M. Noonan

    Had a similar situation on a blog I once maintained – wrote an article about a person and then someone who didn’t like that person chimed in on the comments to really rip the subject of the article. The subject of the article then jumped in and threatened to sue me if I didn’t take the comments down (no complaints about my article – likely because I only stuck to the facts and when offering an opinion clearly stated it to be just that – my opinion). I decided to delete all the comments from the article – it just wasn’t worth the grief (and as the article was about a man who was on disability and didn’t have to put in 40 hours a week at work, as I did, I figured he had the time to clog up the courts to his heart’s content, if he had a mind to do it – even if I won, it would have been a hassle) and, as in your case, the thing allegedly causing offense was something someone else wrote.

    I do believe we’re better protected here in the United States than anywhere else in the world on such matters – the First Amendment is pretty iron-clad and the courts, liberal and conservative, have tended to come down hard in broadly interpreting what is acceptable to publish. But legal harassment is still costly – as several American bloggers recently discovered when they wrote nothing but the truth about a one-time domestic terrorist-turned-liberal-activist. The bloggers won, but it cost them a lot of time and money.

    A gentle answer does turneth away wrath – but not when you’re dealing with lunatics and people who are stealing. Lunatics don’t like their crazy worldview disturbed while those who are stealing don’t want to get off the gravy train. The only thing I can think to defend against this is to make a loser-pays law – and a requirement that the person suing put up a bond in the amount of the likely legal defense costs of the suit.

  • DaveM

    Did the Canadian court render a default judgment against you because there is no law guaranteeing freedom of speech in Canada?