Bloggers love it when themes collide — when a story reflects one of their pet topics intersecting with an entirely unrelated but equally important pet topic. It's like Sad Keanu or Rebecca Black getting into a fistfight with an ungrammatical kitten or one of those YA RLY owls.
That's why this story delights me. It's got everything we love at Popehat. It's got free speech, legal threats, SLAPP issues, junk science, bad marketing, and proves the familiar catchphrase "outsource your marketing, outsource your reputation and ethics." If someone in the story could just get their junk touched by the TSA and draw a disapproving comment from a blimp-riding Ron Paul, I think I would have either a stroke or an inappropriate orgasm.
So, without further ado, I'd like you to meet Marc Stephens, who wants you to think he is an attorney.
Marc Stephens, as far as I've been able to determine with some help and leads from friends, is a web designer in California, a former real estate agent, and the president of a defunct California corporation. However, as far as I can tell, he is not a member of the bar in California or Texas.
So why is he sending legal threats suggesting that he will sue bloggers on behalf of a Texas "client"?
The "client" in question is "The Burzynski Clinic" in Texas. Dr. Burzynski markets himself and his clinic as at the cutting edge of cancer treatment, and promotes clinical trials in something called "antineoplaston treatment." He has his fans and devotees and occasionally his uncritical good press in the media. But he also has detractors — including numerous science bloggers who have asserted that his "antineoplaston treatment" is overpriced junk science that has not been subjected to appropriate peer review, and who have criticized Dr. Burzynski for promoting it. I am no scientist — my knowledge of cancer treatment is from observing the ugly end of it — so I will let the science bloggers speak for themselves. Consider, for instance, Quackometer, Orac at Respectful Insolence, Cancer Research UK, and 17-year-old UK blogger Rhys Morgan at Skeptical.
I'm not here to convince you that Dr. Burzynski practices junk science, though as a layman I find the criticisms of him far more persuasive than his defenses. No, my point is about marketing and censorship. Bloggers openly questioned Dr. Burzynski's practices and the scientific basis for them. In an era in which junk scientists respond to public expressions of skepticism with libel suits, this could not stand. And so a champion — Marc Stephens — emerged, perhaps self-appointed, perhaps not.
Marc Stephens embarked upon a campaign of threatening, bumptious, berating emails against bloggers who had questioned the scientific basis for the Burzynski Clinic's practices. Blogger Josephine Jones compiled a list both his threats and the responses to them and commentary on them.
The threats strongly implied — falsely, it appears — that Marc Stephens is an attorney representing the Burzynski Clinic. For example, his threat to Quackometer implied repeatedly that he's the clinic's lawyer, as did his continuing dialogue with the proprietors of that site:
I represent the Burzynski Clinic, Burzynski Research Institute, and Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski. It has been brought to our attention that you have content on your websites http://www.quackometer.net/blog/2011/11/the-false-hope-of-the-burzynski-clinic.html that is in violation of multiple laws.
Please allow this correspondence to serve as notice to you that you published libelous and defamatory information. This correspondence constitutes a demand that you immediately cease and desist in your actions defaming and libeling my clients.
Please be advised that my clients consider the content of your posting to be legally actionable under numerous legal causes of action, including but not limited to: defamation Libel, defamation per se, and tortious interference with business contracts and business relationships. The information you assert in your article is factually incorrect, and posted with either actual knowledge, or reckless disregard for its falsity.
Once I obtain a subpoena for your personal information, I will not settle this case with you. Shut the article down IMMEDIATELY.
GOVERN YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY.
You fully understand what you’re doing, which is why you are trying to hide behind your so-called “opinion”. You have a history of lying in your articles since 2008. All articles and videos posted from your little network are being forwarded to local authorities, as well as local counsel. It is your responsibility to understand when you brake[sic] the law. I am only obligated to show you in court.
None of the previous attorneys that contacted you about defamation had documented history in the courts. We have well documented history which is on record with the court, which is available to the public. So, when I present to the juror that my client and his cancer treatment has went up against 5 Grand Juries which involved the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Aetna Life Insurance, Emprise, Inc., Texas State Medical Board, and the United States Government, and was found not guilty in all 5 cases, you will wish you never wrote your article. In addition, my client has treated multiple cancer patients around the world, which is fully documented by the FDA, NCI, and Kurume University School of Medicine in Japan, and has finished Phase II clinical trials with FDA approval to move forward with Phase III. I suggest you spend more time with your new child then posting lies and false information on the internet that will eventually get you sued, which will hurt you financially. I am going to pursue you at the highest extent of the law.
Marc Stephens also refused Quackometer's repeated requests to specify exactly what in the blog post was false, which as I've said before is a telltale sign of a bullshit legal threat.
Stephens made similar threats to 17-year-old Rhys Morgan, with a similar false implication that Stephens is a lawyer representing the clinic:
I represent Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, Burzynski Clinic, and Burzynski Research Institute.
It has been brought to our attention that you have content on your website http://thewelshboyo.co.uk/2011/08/the-burzynski-clinic/ and on your Twitter account that is in violation of several state and federal laws.
This is a legal complaint regarding the your multiple twitter account posts, and article you posted online titled “The Burzynski Clinic dated August 28, 2011, by Rhys Morgan”. This correspondence constitutes a demand that you immediately cease and desist in your actions defaming and libeling my clients."
Rhys Morgan initially took his post down. But — rather cleverly — he decided to write to the clinic to determine whether Marc Stephens was actually a lawyer representing them.
I attach an email (titled Email Thread.pdf) I have received from one Marc Stephens, who claims to represent you. As you can see from the attachment, he states that he represents you, and furthermore threatens me with libel proceedings in respect of material I posted on my blog.
I have carried out some internet research, and I have not been able to establish whether or not Mr. Stephens is a lawyer; certainly he does not appear to be a member of the California Bar nor the Texas Bar in the light of my visit to the California Bar Association’s and the State Bar of Texas’s websites. Please could you confirm for me whether he does in fact represent you and, if he does, on what basis he does represent you.
In the light of Mr. Stephen’s email I attach a copy of an article (titled Burzynski Blog Final.pdf) I propose to post on my blog as well as the original blog post (titled The Burzynski Clinic.pdf) which is currently offline. Please could you tell me within 7 days what, if any, of the blogs you object to, and, in particular, whether you believe any of the blogs to be factually untrue.
The clinic apparently forwarded the communication to Stephens, who responded in a high fury. Note how carefully he avoids committing to whether or not he is a lawyer representing the clinic — even though the text of his response, and the fact that he responded on behalf of the clinic, is calculated to create the false appearance that he is:
This is my THIRD AND FINAL WARNING to you.
Please convey this message to your entire Skeptic Network, which includes but not limited to, Ratbags.com, thetwentyfirstfloor, quackwatch, etc. I represent Dr. Burzynski, the Burzynski Clinic, and the Burzynski Research Institute. I’ve attached Azad Rastegar, and Renee Trimble from the Burzynski Clinic for your confirmation.
In the following weeks I will be giving authorization to local attorneys in multiple countries to pursue every defamation libel case online, including your online libelous statements. I suggest you shut down your entire online defamation campaign about Dr. Burzynski, and remove ALL recent or previous comments off the internet IMMEDIATELY. The minute you post any libelous comments online about my client I will pursue you and your parents/guardians To the Full Extent of the Law. I have no obligation to train you, or teach you, the meaning of defamation. Google it, or go to the library and research it.
This is a very serious matter. Please confirm your mailing address, which I have on record as (my address). If you do not cooperate an official legal complaint requesting punitive damages will be mailed to that address. I will be contacting your school as well to inform them of your illegal acts.
Again, this is my FINAL WARNING TO YOU.
Just so you know that I am very serious. I copied Renee Trimble the Director of Public Relations, and Azad Rastegar the spokesperson for the Burzynski Clinic. You and your supporters can stop asking if I am an attorney. Again, I represent the Burzynski Clinic, Burzynski Research Institute, and Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski. If your articles remain online I will pursue you in court to the highest extent of the law.
Anyway, despite his misleading and arguably fraudulent suggestions to the contrary, Marc Stephens is not, it appears, an attorney. Rather, it seems he's a web guru of some flavor, with a shop called MAS Web Design & Hosting (MAS for Marc Anthony Stephens, no doubt) which proudly displays a link to the Burzynski Clinic. His name is listed on a Burzynski Clinic patient site as representing the clinic in some capacity.
Was Marc Stephens authorized to go on his tirade? Well, the fact that the clinic forwarded Rhys Morgan's inquiry to Stephen suggests that he was. But if you ask the clinic now, they'll be quick to tell you that he wasn't, as revealed in their press release:
The Burzynski Clinic is issuing the following public statement regarding recent internet activity between U.K. bloggers who have provided inaccurate information regarding the Clinic and Marc Stephens.
Marc Stephens was recently hired by the Burzynski Clinic as an independent contractor to provide web optimization services and to attempt to stop the dissemination of false and inaccurate information concerning Dr. Burzynski and the Clinic.
We understand that Marc Stephens sent a google map picture of a blogger's house to the blogger and made personal comments to bloggers. Dr. Burzynski and the Clinic feel that such actions were not appropriate. Dr. Buzynski and the Burzynski Clinic apologize for these comments. Marc Stephens no longer has a professional relationship with the Burzynski Clinic.
That squishing sound you hear is Marc Stephens being thrown under the bus by the Burzynski Clinic.
But just because they're pushing poor, angry, frothing, rather inarticulate, possibly crazy Marc out on an ice floe, don't think they are backing down. The rest of the press release asserts that bloggers are making false statements about Burzynski's methods. (Protip: if it becomes necessary to issue a press release saying, in effect, "we don't pee on people", something has gone very badly wrong with your public relations strategy.) The press release goes on to single out U.K. bloggers (a tell that the clinic is probably contemplating the loathsome practice of libel tourism) and warns that their attorneys will be in touch. Who will represent them? Well, Rhys Morgan got a hint:
Then, on Wednesday, 23rd September – one day before the new deadline was up – I received an email from a law firm called Dozier Internet Law. They informed me they had been hired by the Burzynski Clinic to “investigate and address the issues regarding [my] blog” and respond to my questions in the email sent directly to the Burzynski Clinic.
Ah, yes. The Dozier Law Group. They are the shrewd practitioners that like to send threatening letters and assert that the letters are copyrighted and that publishing them on the internet will lead to lawsuits, in a comically stupid effort to thwart the Streisand Effect. Those guys. Burzynski Clinic, let me tell you: if your aim is to repair the damage to your reputation caused by Marc Stephens buffoonish threats, then you're heading in the wrong direction. As a public relations move, firing Marc Stephens and hiring the Dozier Law Group is roughly like firing Jeffrey Dahmer as your sous-chef and hiring Hannibal Lecter to take his place. Hannibal is far more polished, but you're not really changing the message — you're still talking about eating people.
So: it's object lesson time.
Lesson number one: as we say all the time in the context of criticizing lawyers who hire internet marketeers who promote the lawyers through comment spam, when you outsource your marketing, you outsource your reputation and your ethics. The Burzynski Clinic's press release seems to concede that it tasked Marc Stephens to address its bad reputation on the internet. Through a campaign of half-literate, comically legally misguided, and fatuously irritating legal threats, Marc Stephens worsened Dr. Burzynski's reputation by several orders of magnitude, to the point of getting a 17-year-old blogger a column in The Guardian, which normally would never happen unless the 17-year-old were particularly critical of Israel. Marc Stephens could not have harmed Burzynski's reputation more if he had set out on a well-funded campaign to destroy it. The lesson: manage your own reputation, and carefully monitor the people who help you with it.
Lesson number two: think and investigate before buckling to legal threats. The person threatening you with a defamation suit over the internet is sometimes a lawyer and sometimes a lunatic. Here, a young student was savvy enough to inquire, investigate, and draw his own conclusions. Be more like Rhys Morgan, who initially took a post down, but then put it back up and wrote more about it based on a rational inquiry.
[On this point: do not assume you can tell a lawyer from a lay-nut by reading a threat letter. I see many commentators have asserted that Marc Stephens was obviously not a lawyer because his communications contained grammatical and spelling errors, feckless generalities, puerile purple prose, and other hallmarks of crazy people. Anyone who says that has not had prolonged exposure to actual lawyers, some of whom write exactly like that. Always check the state bar web site.]
Lesson number three: stand up, and ask the community to help you stand up. Rhys Morgan — a 17-year-old — yielded initially but ultimately sought help, engaged in rational inquiry, and stood up against the loathsome thuggery of Marc Stephens and the Burzynski Clinic. There are many lawyers and non-lawyers who will help you if you are being threatened with a defamation claim based on what you've written. [I'm one of them. In fact, watch this space for the successful conclusion of another instance of anti-science thuggery.] Note: this is easier said that done, and we at Popehat are not in a position to throw the first stone at anyone who has yielded to a legal threat. But if you've gotten one, there are people willing to help — seek them out.
Lesson number four: this one is a special delivery, with love from Ken to Marc Stephens. Marc, you've been sending multiple communications to people on the internet. Those communications repeatedly imply that you are a lawyer representing the Burzynski Clinic. In fact, I submit that any reasonable person reading those communications would conclude that you're fraudulently posing as a lawyer. Guess what, Marc. That's illegal. It's a crime in California, where I suspect you currently reside. The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office — which, I believe based on my research of you, would have jurisdiction over you — takes an active interest in prosecuting it. California courts define "practice of law" very broadly, and not particularly specifically, for purposes of the unauthorized practice thereof:
[A]ny definition of legal practice is, given the complexity and variability of the
subject, incapable of universal application and can provide only a general guide to
whether a particular act or activity is the practice of law. To restrict or limit its
applicability to situations in the interest of specificity would also limit its
applicability to situations in which the public requires protection.
People v. Landlords Professional Services (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 1599, 1609.
I've taken the liberty of dropping a note to the DA about you, Marc. I encourage everyone who has gotten a legal threat from you to do the same — as victims, their complains will be more convincing.
Lesson number five: Attempts at censorship via legal threats are not merely futile in the internet age — they are disastrously counter-productive. GOVERN YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY.