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Libel and Antimatter

"[Defendant's] posts inspired viewers' comments, which read like a nerd's version of a fist fight." More substantively, "In this context, and considering the cutting-edge nature of [plaintiff's] research into antimatter's theoretical applications [which defendant was sharply criticizing], a reasonable reader would expect zealous debate."


An interesting case about libel and science; I will quote from the magistrate's report and recommendations in Santilli v. Van Erp (M.D. Fla.), which the district court just adopted yesterday. First, the summary:

This is a defamation action stemming from a series of articles that Defendant, Dutch scientist Pepijn Van Erp, posted on his personal blog. Plaintiffs are a scientist and his wife who research antimatter from their Florida laboratory. Antimatter is the opposite of normal matter: all sub-atomic particles have an equivalent antimatter particle with opposite charge and quantum spin. For example, the electron has an antimatter counterpart called the positron with the same mass as an electron but with a positive charge. Revising the maxim that matter can be neither created nor destroyed, scientists now believe that energy and mass are interchangeable—that when a particle collides with its antiparticle, the two annihilate each other (antimatter annihilation), with their mass being entirely converted into energy.

The rub is that scientists barely detect any antimatter in the observable universe. If antimatter is the opposite of matter, shouldn't there be an equal amount of both? This question has stumped nuclear physicists. Antimatter can be artificially generated and studied in huge particle accelerators, but this process is incredibly expensive.

Enter Plaintiff Ruggero Santilli, who claims to have developed a telescope with a concave lens (rather than convex, as utilized by a traditional telescope) that can detect antimatter. He has posted articles about his discovery on the website for his company Thunder Energies and in journals.

Defendant Pepijn Van Erp finds Santilli's discovery inherently suspect. So much so that Van Erp posted entries to his personal blog ( titled "The Continuing Stupidity of Ruggero Santilli," "Finding JV Kadeisvili-or Mailing with Ruggero M. Santilli," and "More Santilli Shenanigans." These posts inspired viewers' comments, which read like a nerd's version of a fist fight. With Santilli's reputation as a cutting-edge research scientist on the line, Plaintiffs sued Defendants in state court in April 2017, claiming Defendants' online attacks have defamed Santilli and tortiously interfered with their business of marketing and selling the antimatter telescope (which Thunder Energies dubs the Santilli telescope). Defendants removed the case to this Court….

The facts:

Plaintiffs moved … to preliminarily enjoin Defendants: they ask the Court to order Defendants to revise the title of one blog post and to remove defamatory content from another….

In February 2016, Van Erp posted the blog entry "The Continuing Stupidity of Ruggero Santilli" to his website. He attached a link to a You Tube video by Thunder Energies titled "Thunder Energies Discovers Invisible Entities" that touts the Santilli telescope's ability to detect antimatter galaxies, antimatter asteroids, and antimatter cosmic rays. Van Erp attempts to debunk Santilli's findings:

"This claim by Santilli might be the easiest to debunk of all the extraordinary claims he has made (like the existence of magnecules and his alternative explanation for why the sun colors red when it sets). The whole concept of antimatter-light is bullshit, because the anti-particle of a photon is simply a photon. So if you want to speak of antimatter-light it's no different than 'normal' light. 'Anti-matter light' will therefore not focus with a concave lens. I will not bother trying to give explanations for the grainy images he took with his Santilli-'out-of-focus'-telescope which he claims show Invisible Terrestrial Entities."

Van Erp's criticisms continue: "Santilli writes that he has an article on this discovery of Invisible Terrestrial Entities in press with the American Journal of Modern Physics. That's just one of those fake journals, which will probably print anything if you are willing to pay their fees." What follows is a string of comments by readers, who look to be scientists, amateur physicists, and followers of the paranormal. Most of these comments are critical of Santilli and his research; those that defend it are posted by a "Frank Stone," who Van Erp posits is actually Santilli. Some of the comments are benign—"Joaquim" writes, "I'm not really a young person and I've been building optics and telescopes since my youth, as a hobby. When I saw the telescope and that confirmation article, I thought something weird was going on, maybe I was going crazy or the laws of the universe changed while I wasn't looking. I just wanted to thank Mr. Pepijn for restoring my mental sanity." And some comments are just plain mean—"Christian Corda" writes, " ' Mr. Stone,' you are Santilli because you have not the balls to use your real name. It is better having my job rather than being a poor old and crackpot man obsessed by false conspiracies like you." Mostly the comments are a pseudo slug-fest between Van Erp in one corner and Frank Stone in the other.

In August 2016, Van Erp posted "More Santilli Shenanigans" to his blog. This article summarizes Santilli's reaction to Van Erp's earlier articles, "The Continuing Stupidity of Ruggero Santilli" and "Finding JV Kadeisvili—or Mailing with Ruggero M Santilli." [Footnote: This article accuses Santilli of reacting to criticisms of his work by publishing articles in support of his research under pseudonyms. Van Erp writes: "The board of the company is filled with relatives. His son is now CEO, his daughter in law CFO and they all pay themselves good salaries. Meanwhile, the company is making losses which run in the millions since start-up. It looks like a pyramid scheme."] Apparently, Santilli had sent Van Erp a cease and desist letter through his counsel, which Van Erp blogged about. What most offends Santilli from "More Santilli Shenanigans"—the language he asks the Court to order Van Erp to remove—is Van Erp's accusation that Santilli fabricated an award and bestowed it upon himself:

"To most people it will be clear that this award was instigated by mr. S himself and that he just asked his co-worker Georgiev to organize the signatures. There is a clue that this piece of paper was doctored at the offices of mr. S: the filename of the picture is 'TARPON_2.jpg', which points to the address of his business (1444 Rainville Road, Tarpon Springs, Florida). Im sure that these are just two more events we can add to the long list of fringe activities on Santilli's curriculum vitae."

"The Continuing Stupidity of Ruggero Santilli" appears second in a Google search of Santilli. Plaintiffs allege that Van Erp's blog has scared off potential investors in Thunder Energies, and they attach two affidavits to their motion from consultants saying just that….

The defamation analysis:

Plaintiffs … are not likely to succeed on the merits of their defamation claims…. Plaintiffs' complaint focuses on the following allegedly defamatory statements: Van Erp refers to Santilli as a "fringe scientist," a "mad professor," and a "cunning scam artist" who publishes articles in "fake" journals; he accuses Santilli of fabricating awards; Van Erp writes that Santilli uses pseudonyms online to compliment his own work; and Santilli paystohavehisresearchpublished. All in all, "[t]he very nature of the subject matter, tone and insinuations of The Subject Articles, along with stating that Ruggero is continuing in stupidity, reflects negatively on Ruggero in his profession as a scientist and an inventor."

Read in context, a reasonable reader would recognize Van Erp's posts as inviting intellectual rivals to engage in a scientific disagreement. Labeling Santilli a "mad professor," and a "fringe scientist," are subjective assessments of Santilli's work and not readily capable of being proven true or false…. Notably too, Van Erp includes links to Santilli-created content—websites and articles of Santilli's original research—and links to other primary sources he consulted in forming his (often scathing) rebuttal. Under Florida law, commentary or opinion based on accurate facts set forth in an article "are not the stuff of libel."

Van Erp's comment that Santilli is a "cunning scam artist," standing alone, maybe construed as accusing him of a crime. Here is the entire comment: "Is Santilli just a mad professor? Or is he a cunning scam artist trying to sell his 'Santilli-ofocus-scopes' (or even better: stock in his businesses) to people who fall easily for sciency sounding nonsense? Maybe both …" This statement—in the form of a question—is non-actionable rhetorical hyperbole that a reasonable reader would interpret as a "vigorous epithet" offered by a scientist who considers Santilli's theories and inventions the stuff of science fiction.

At bottom, this quarrel between Santilli and Van Erp arises from both sides' research into theories that are almost 100 years old regarding how to reconcile combined quantum mechanics with Einstein's theory of relativity. In this context, and considering the cutting-edge nature of Santilli's research into antimatter's theoretical applications, a reasonable reader would expect zealous debate.

Significantly, readers were invited to respond to Van Erp's criticism of Santilli as a part of an interactive online discussion. Some of these comments were favorable to Santilli's scientific theories, some were not. The media vehicle Van Erp chose—blog posts on his personal website—is popular for just this type of debate, and is the type of online forum where a reasonable person expects to find controversy and accompanying rhetoric. I find that Plaintiffs are not likely to succeed on their defamation claims….

The injunction analysis:

Under Florida law, there is a "well-settled rule prohibiting injunctive relief in defamation cases." If the allegedly defamatory statements constitute or are incidental to conduct that constitutes intentional interference with a potentially advantageous business relationship, however, there is a limited exception to the general rule that equitable relief is unavailable in defamation cases. But there must be an independent basis for invoking equitable jurisdiction. In other words, Plaintiffs must establish a clear legal right to injunctive relief on their tortious interference claims because, standing alone, injunctive relief is unavailable on their defamation claims….

It is clear from Plaintiffs' second amended complaint that they only nominally sue for tortious interference with a business relationship; defamation is the crux of their case. Most of their complaint alludes to Van Erp's allegedly "false," "malicious," and "disparaging" statements about Santilli on his blog. But, in any event, Plaintiffs have not established that they likely will succeed on their tortious interference claim. To prevail, a plaintiff must prove (1) the existence of a business relationship [with or without an enforceable contract, but something beyond just an offer to sell]; (2) knowledge of the relationship on the part of the opposing party; (3) an intentional and unjustified interference with the relationship by the opposing party; and (4) damage to the plaintiff as a result of the breach of that relationship…. Plaintiffs stumble over the first element of the cause of action…. [Defendant's evidence avers merely] that Van Erp's blog posts have interfered with [their consultant's] ability to develop business relationships with unnamed and unknown potential investors on Plaintiffs' behalf. This is not the proximate cause contemplated by Florida [interference with business relations] law….

[Moreover, p]rior restraints [such as preliminary injunctions] are the most serious and intolerable of First Amendment infringements. Plaintiffs offer no extraordinary circumstance to justify overriding the strong public policy against imposing a prior restraint on speech….

Finally, an interesting footnote:

Neither side addresses whether Van Erp, a Dutch citizen who resides in the Netherlands, can assert First Amendment concerns; but if he can be called into court here, it follows that he can assert all available defenses to the claims against him.

Sounds right to me.

NEXT: Short Circuit: A roundup of recent federal court decisions

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  1. All I can think to say is if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it is a duck. "Invisible Terrestial Entities". Sure...

    1. You could have stopped with quack.

    2. One might uncharitably say the judge is ducking the quack issue....

      1. And physicists cry, "quark, quark, quark all the way home."

    3. Or the Cheech & Chong version:
      Look like dog shit,
      Smell like dog shit,
      Taste like dog shit,
      Must be dog shit!

  2. In the antimatter universe, the plaintiff just won a yuge damage award.

  3. Wow, this judge seems pretty well informed about the scientific issues here. It's a welcome change from most of the judges that get coverage here and at Popehat.

    1. Mass-energy equivalence does not violate the conservation of matter and energy, it is its apotheosis. Moreover, is a discovery almost a hundred years old. The judge is not that well-informed.

  4. When I run into pseudo-science, I put on my three-cornered hat made of aluminum foil.

    I call this my "anti-matter hat", because it fends off, or foils, that which does not matter!

    1. Unfortunately the claim is worse than psuedo-science.

      1. Would it be fair to describe Santilli's claims, not as the ordinary science we deal with every day, but as anti-science?

  5. I am reminded of a cartoon, a physicist at a blackboard teaching a class, and he tells them:

    "Along with "Matter", "Antimatter" and "Dark Matter", Physicists have recently discovered "Doesn't Matter", which has no conceivable effect on the universe whatsoever."

    This flame war on an obscure science blog falls in the category of "Doesn't Matter."

    1. Unless your wallet was lightened by investing in this, because patter talking about how stupid it is was effectively silenced.

  6. "They laughed at me in Nijmegen!" is a pretty solid mad scientist line. How could a brave crusader against the Jewish plot to hide the existence of the magnecular bond find anything but joy in having a nemesis named Van Erp?

    Santilli should be grateful, in my field "They laughed at me in East Lansing" is probably the best I could do if I ever discovered "The Truth"

    1. Having spent a few years in East Lansing in the early '70s, I might hazard a guess that the reason they laughed at you was because they were stoned, and in a state where pretty much everything was funny.

    2. Wonder if Van Erp is a distant relative of Wyatt? He definitely has good aim & rapid fire!

  7. Seems like this case would have parallels to the Steyn-Mann case that's been dragging on for more than half a decade for no apparent reason.

  8. "At bottom, this quarrel between Santilli and Van Erp arises from both sides' research into theories that are almost 100 years old regarding how to reconcile combined quantum mechanics with Einstein's theory of relativity. In this context, and considering the cutting-edge nature of Santilli's research into antimatter's theoretical applications, a reasonable reader would expect zealous debate."

    Actually the judge is very poorly informed about the science, the presence of anti-matter in the universe has been measure for decades and now with incredibly high precision instruments that can detect anti-mater to better than 1 part in a billion with an accuracy or far better than 5 standard deviations. Antimatter searches have been published in high impact journals and have been subject to the most rigorous peer review. These instruments have nothing to do with optical telescopes. As telescopes detect photons, no arrangement of lenses is better or worse at detecting photons emitted by anti-matter.

    The "out-of-focus-scope" is a fraud and would be judged as such in a submission to any scientific journal with an impact factor greater than 1. Mr. S should apply for a US Patent if he is so convinced. However, he'd be better off saving his money.

    1. The judge wrote nothing in conflict with what you said.

      If the telescope were real then it really would be cutting edge: merely swapping the lens out would be extremely simple. Of course it's not true but it isn't the court's job to decide the veracity of scientific claims tangential to the case.

  9. This case strikes me as having no more to do with actual science than Charles Ponzi's operation had to do with actual postal reply coupons.

    I agree a small portion of the case - that the theory being touted here is totally bogus, as there are no such thing as anti-photons (and no evidence of their having been discovered) - might be considered "science debate."

    But most of it involves claims that the device being peddled doesn't work, that the principals are taking money from investors and using it for personal expenses rather than developing and selling the business, that the journals the articles are published in are vanity presses, and much else.

    These are all traditional business fraud claims, independent of what the business is actually selling. They are factual claims and insulated if factually true, potentially libelous if not.

    The fact that the scheme here is trying to peddle high-falutin' physics and it's critic is a physicist neither specially insulates it from criticism nor specially insulates it's critics.

    The case might be different if it had been limited to criticizing a paper. But when you sell or criticize a product, you expose yourself to ordinary business liability. You aren't specially insulated because your product is high-tech.

  10. "Neither side addresses whether Van Erp, a Dutch citizen who resides in the Netherlands, can assert First Amendment concerns."

    i think it's pretty clear he can, because if he is being brought into court under defamation law passed by Congress or the Florida legislature, then the law is invalid if it is interpreted to abridge anyone's freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a natural right not conferred by the constitution, the constitution merely prohibits laws that abridge that natural right. Like Florida defamation law, if it was interpreted as the plaintiff is asserting.

    The Judge is clearly right that he can't give the law meaning that violates the first amendment, but not because foreigners have constitutional rights here or abroad, but because the legislature is prohibited from making any law holding anyone to answer for their free speech.

  11. No serious appraisal of the lawsuit considered in this blog can be achieved without an inspection of the
    PRWeb Announcement summary
    and its
    full presentation.
    Comments are welcome. XenoNewYork

    1. Sorry the original PRWEB Newswire was wrong. The correct one is XenoNewYork

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