First Amendment

A Psychiatric Facility Punishes Residents With Painful Electric Shocks. Now It's Trying To Sue Its Critics.

The Judge Rotenberg Center, which has been condemned by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, is suing a small nonprofit for defamation after they published a survey critical of the school's practices.


The Judge Rotenberg Center is a residential psychiatric institution in Canton, Massachusetts. Since its founding in 1971, the Rotenberg Center has become infamous for its use of controversial methods to treat children and adults with behavioral problems and developmental disabilities. "Students" at the center are subjected to contingent skin shock, an extreme version of applied behavior analysis, which is a common treatment for autism and other developmental conditions.

The electric shocks given to individuals at the Rotenberg Center are severe. According to one expert, the shocks are at least six times more potent than the most powerful legal stun gun. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the Center's practices have been condemned by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, and six residents have died while in the center's care.

Despite scandals, according to FIRE, officials at the Rotenberg Center have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying government bodies to keep the center open. In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) formally banned the electric shock devices used by the center because they "present an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury." However, the center successfully sued, reinstating its practices after a federal appeals court found that the FDA did not have the authority to ban the center's shock devices.

Disability rights groups have consistently opposed the Rotenberg Center's practices. While their efforts have not succeeded so far, shutting down the center remains a top priority for many autism rights groups and activists. However, one activist group now faces a lawsuit for speaking out against the Center's practices.

NeuroClastic is a small nonprofit and publication that runs stories by autistic writers who cover topics pertaining to disability rights. On its website, the organization writes that it seeks "to create a counter-point to messaging about autism that presents the autistic neurotype as a disease or disorder or a checklist of deficits."

In August 2021, NeuroClastic published "900 ABA Professionals Have Weighed in on the Use of Electroshock at Judge Rotenberg Center." The survey found that 89 percent of surveyed clinicians "strongly opposed" the practice, and 70 percent of respondents "believe the JRC should be shut down." 

On April 27, the Rotenberg Center responded by sending a cease-and-desist letter to NeuroClastic, claiming that the organization's statements "are false and defamatory and are causing harm to JRC." The letter singles out NeuroClastic's survey of ABA professionals, claiming that NeuroClastic published a litany of false statements about the Rotenberg Center.

However, "all of NeuroClastic's statements are true or substantially true, and NeuroClastic believes them to be true based on publicly available sources that it cited at the time of publication," wrote FIRE Attorney Gabe Walters in a response to the cease-and-desist letter. Walters continued "The other statements [the Rotenberg Center] identif[ies] are plainly matters of protected opinion."

As noted by FIRE, many of the allegedly defamatory statements are in fact verifiable. For example, NeuroClastic stated that the Rotenberg Center has shocked residents while they were tied down on the floor. The center claims this is false. However, according to FIRE, that statement is "based on a video of a resident strapped to a restraint board and shocked 31 times. CBS Evening News broadcast footage of the video nationally."

"NeuroClastic shouldn't face litigation for advocating for its mission, which is to be a voice for autistic people. The Center is delivering painful electric shocks to autistic residents to try to suppress their autistic behaviors and NeuroClastic is obviously opposed to that practice, and speaks out about it," Walters tells Reason. "It can't enter one side of the debate on this public issue, and then try to shut down the other side by intimidating them with a meritless defamation suit."