Archive for June, 2011

BCA v Singh & McLibel: Two Important Lessons

June 30, 2011

The threat of being sued for libel is one that is shared by many writers and activists. The nature of such laws varies from nation to nation with some nations having the law set up in a manner that puts burden of proof on the defendant, this and other aspects of their legal system make the UK one of the hardest places to win when being sued for libel. British science writer and skeptic Simon Singh found this out first hand when in a piece in The Guardian on April 19th 2008 entitled “Beware The Spinal Trap” he wrote,

“You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organization is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”

It was the last sentence that drew the ire of the British Chiropractic Association who then took legal action. The BCA contended and it was initially ruled that by writing “happily promotes bogus treatments” Singh intended it as a statement of fact (rather than opinion) and meant to say that the BCA were knowingly promoting ineffective treatments. At this point the burden laid upon Singh to prove both that chiropractic treatment isn’t supported by good science, not that hard to do, and that the BCA themselves knew this but were perpetuating a fraud (much harder to do). Thankfully in April 2010 that initial ruling was reversed upon appeal, Simon then only had to defend his statement as opinion which is defensible as fair comment and as a result on the 15th of April the BCA dropped their case against Simon Singh.

Simon’s case was all over the papers and blogosphere and had sparked off a Libel Reform Campaign , drawing much of the public’s attention to the issue and bringing back memories of past injustices. Libel isn’t something just skeptics and science writers must worry about, it is a major concern for animal rights, environmental, and political activists as exemplified by the now famous McLibel trial. In 1990 McDonald’s initiated what would become one of the worst PR disasters for the company when they pursued a lawsuit against two London activists for distributing a leaflet entitled “What’s Wrong With McDonald’s”. The leaflet, which had actually been in distribution since 1986, was the handy work of a small activist group called London Greenpeace (no affiliation with the larger organization) and had over the years drawn the attention and ire of top McDonald’s execs. McDonald’s sent two different private investigator teams to spy on the activists. At “some London Greenpeace meetings there were as many spies as campaigners present”, Morris once remarked. Activists were followed home, the London Greenpeace office was broken into, and one spy even had a 6 month love affair with one of the campaigners. Such activities are not all that out of the ordinary, from COINTELPOL to the Green Scare corporations and governments have sought to silence effective criticism and activism. Originally five members of London Greenpeace where to be sued over the content of the leaflet but three reluctantly apologized and were dropped from the lawsuit leaving Helen Steel and Dave Morris as the sole defendants.

Because of the complex nature of some of the scientific claims in the leaflet the court deemed it necessary or at least expedient  to forgo a jury trial for a trial by a single judge, a move that both Morris and Steel objected to. British law also does not provide for free legal aid in libel cases so the two, having little money, would have to defend themselves. In going up against a Goliath like McDonald’s with its army of corporate lawyers the pair were at a significant disadvantage.

The story of the trial itself its long and complex, being detailed in the documentary McLibel and more thoroughly in the 30,000 pages, of court transcripts. As it dragged on it became first the longest libel case, then the longest civil trial, and then the longest trial of any kind in English history. The case completely backfired on McDonald’s, having printed a potentially libelous flyer about the defendants at one point they became trapped in the case and the publicity only served to gain the anti-McDonald’s leaflet more attention. The lawsuit itself hinged on various claims made in the leaflet ranging from animal cruelty, hunger in poor nations, environmental destruction, advertisements targeted at children, employment practices, poor working conditions, nutrition, and disease and in the end the judgment was mixed, while the defendants where found guilty of libel on some counts other claims were found to have merit. Most interesting to the readers of this blog is the ruling on the animal cruelty section of the leaflet,

“Although not all the particular charges are justified, in my overall judgment those that are justified, relating to the restriction of movement of battery hens, broiler chickens and chickens who have their throats cut while still fully conscious are sufficient to justify the general charge that the First and Second Plaintiffs are culpably responsible for cruel practices in the rearing and slaughter of some of the animals which are used to produce their food.

‘There are other cruel practices affecting chickens which are used to provide the Plaintiffs’ food; calcium deficit resulting in osteopaenia in battery hens, the restriction of broiler breeders’ feed with the result that they go hungry although bred for appetite, leg problems in broilers bred for weight, rough handling of broilers taken for slaughter and pre-stun electric shocks suffered by broilers on the way to slaughter. Those matters, for which the Second Plaintiff or both Plaintiffs are in my judgment culpably responsible, go to strengthen my view that the sting of this part of the leaflet to the effect that the First and Second Plaintiffs are culpably responsible for cruel practices in the rearing and slaughter of some of the animals which are used to produce their food is justified, true in substance and in fact.

The judge ruled that the pair were justified in their claims that McDonald’s exploits children through advertising, is responsible for animal cruelty, risks the health of long term customers, falsely advertises their food as nutritious, pays low wages and is anti-union. But it was also ruled that they had not adequately proved, to the judge’s satisfaction, the allegations against McDonald’s on third world hunger, rainforest destruction, food poisoning, cancer, heart disease, or poor working conditions. Morris and Steel were ordered to pay £60,000 in damages to McDonald’s, something that they had no intention of ever doing. Nor did they intend to stop their activism against McDonald’s, indeed as early as two days after the verdict Morris and Steel were back on the sidewalk leafleting along with thousands of others across the nation and world-wide. After years of hard legal battle the pair eventually went on to have the European Court of Human Rights rule that the way the Mclibel case was handled violated their right to a fair trial and freedom of expression. Ultimately though they won in court McDonald’s never collected damages, never obtained an injunction against the leaflet, and were seen in the eyes of the public as anti-free speech bullies, in other words, Morris and Steel were undefeated.

Activists of all kinds must recognize that this is not a narrow issue, it is one that can affect us all. As Dave Morris said is reference to Simon’s case, [We] “should all be opposed to aspects of English libel law which unfairly protect public or corporate bodies from public scrutiny and fair criticism, especially around health and scientific issues.”

For more information about the Libel Reform Campaign visit the Sense About Science website and for more on the McLibel trial please read the full story or view the documentary film.

Pythagorean Posse at TAM9

June 20, 2011

The James Randi Educational Foundation will be hosting the largest skeptical conference in the world, The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM), it will once again be coming to Las Vegas, Nevada this July 14th-17th. With over 1,500 people expected this year there will be a number of vegetarians and vegans in attendance. Even D. J. Grothe, the current president of  the JREF, is vegan. So with some inspiration and  prodding from Dave of Pythagorean Crank I decided to organize a vegan/vegetarian meet-up we will be calling the Pythagorean Posse.

On Saturday, July 16th, we will be meeting in the hotel bar, the Del Mar, in the South Point Hotel after Richard Dawkins speaks around 6pm. After everybody is there we will carpool over to Atmoic#7. If you plan to make it to Atmoic#7  on your own just plan on it starting around 6:30 – 7pm.  Atomic#7  is an ice cream shop that makes their own custom regular and vegan ice cream right in front of you using liquid nitrogen, how nerdy it that!? They also make steamed hot pudding if you’re into that as well. So come out and meet your fellow broccoli munching skeptics, we are a diverse bunch so it should be fun and interesting.

Additionally Penn Jilette will be hosting a Rock & Roll, Doughnut and Bacon Party on Friday night that we shall be crashing* with plates of fakin bacon and Ronalds donuts, which have been scientifically proven to be vegan.

If you are interested in the meet-up you can add yourself to the Facebook event page or leave a comment. We will have a carpool and taxipool arranged so it should be easy to get to. Even if you cant make it to the meet-up but will still be at TAM I would love to meet you, drop me a line.

A big thanks to Dave of Pythagorean Crank for designing the candle/leaf logo at the top of the page.

*Just kidding, please be respectful to Penn and guests if attending

Wondering where to get grub in Vegas? Check out the listing of vegan & veg friendly restaurants on Happy Cow.

Also if your planning on hitting the casino while there then why not check out these tips from vegan professional poker player Ed Miller.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I updated the schedule, We will be MEETING AT THE DEL MAR, the South Point Hotel bar, after Dawkins speaks around 6pm, after folks  are gathered we shall leave for Atomic#7 around 6:30, give or take, so if you NEED A RIDE OR CAN OFFER A RIDE or would like to share a taxi meet us at the Del Mar, otherwise you can always just meet us at Atomic#7.


June 13, 2011

I doubt that!Every vegan blog must have an obligatory recipe post, it is just an unwritten rule. So here is mine…

A while back I had the opportunity to meet the Amazing James Randi at a local Skeptics In The Pub. SitP is an event where skeptics and rationalists (or anyone else) come together to share drinks and fellowship and sometimes there will be a planned speaker or accompanying event. I often bring some sort of vegan treat to SitP, both to share with others and because often there isn’t food I can eat there. My girlfriend decided to whip up a batch of sugar cookies, of course something so simple would not do. Randi, for those who don’t know, is a famous magician and president of the James Randi Educational Foundation(JREF). He is famous for exposing frauds such as Uri Geller and Peter Popoff, exposing the unreliability of parapsychology research with the famed Project Alpha, and for offering the Million Dollar Paranormal Challange to anyone who can prove the existence of paranormal powers. Cookies for a SitP featuring the Amazing Randi had to be extra special. So we busted out the royal icing and food color pens and this is what we came up with, an assortment of skeptically themed cookies.

Starting from the top left, the cookies are: A little green man, the Center For Inquiry logo, the For Good Reason podcast logo, the Monster Talk podcast logo, and a 2012 cookie of doom.
On the next row is a ten23 cookie with homeopathic amounts of human urine (we used tap water), a scene from the sunken city of Atlantis…of is it Lemuria, a ghost, The James Randi Educational Foundation logo, and an astrological cookie.
The third row starts with one of my favorites, a UFO abducting a little dinosaur shaped sprinkle, then we have a “blood for oil” cookie, a yin-yang, an anti-vax cookie, and a Illuminati cookie.
Next up is a bigfoot cookie, a cookie for the dominate world religions, a couple 8-balls (logo for TAM 8), and a depiction of Mormonism with golden plates, an angel Moroni, and top hat.
The next row starts with a cookie for a pet peeve of mine, the anti-microwave movement, then a cookie depicting the supposed moon landing hoax, Super Fruit, a Zener card/esp cookie, and Big Pharma.
Finally we have a Reptilian overlord, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, flat earth, aura, an O for organic which these cookies were not and on the very bottom James Randi himself (a larger version is at the top of this post).

The recipe came from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar. Its a great book, I highly recommend it.

Cookie Ingredients:
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

2 tbsp cornstarch

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 cup margarine, slightly softened (like Earth Balance)

1/2 cup vegetable shortening

1 cup sugar

2 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/2 tsp lemon extract (you can also use almond, maple or any other flavor)

1/4 cup vanilla soymilk or other nutmilk

In a bowl, sift together the flour, cornstarch, salt and baking powder and set aside.

In a larger bowl, cream the shortening, margarine and sugar with electric beaters until the mixture gets all soft and fluffy, for at least 4 minutes.

Scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula to ensure everything mixes in. Now beat in the vanilla and lemon extracts and the soymilk until everything is just combined.

Beat in half the flour and when it is thoroughly moistened, and then mix in the rest to form a soft dough.

Divide the dough into two and pat each portion into a disc. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.

On a lightly floured platform or board, roll each disc to about 3/8ths-inch thickness. Cut it into shapes with a cookie cutter. Place the cookies on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, about 1-inch apart. Reroll leftover scraps and shape into more cookies.

In a preheated, 350-degree oven, bake the cookies for about 10 minutes until done.

Remove the cookies from the oven and allow them to cool for five minutes. Then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before decorating.

Royal Icing Ingredients:
2 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons soymilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a bowl whisk all ingredients together, if the icing is too thick add more soymilk, if too thin add a little powdered sugar.
Let the icing dry completely and decorate!


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