Below, a brief open letter by Michael Balter, a veteran science journalist who uncovered many cases of sexual harassment and bullying in academia worldwide. He is now being sued for $18 million, accused of libel by Danielle Kurin, anthropologist at UC Santa Barbara, USA.
Balter speaks out where others science journalists hide under the table and snigger with Schadenfreude. The staff reporter of many years was sacked by Science magazine after having uncovered a sexual harassment case at the American Museum of Natural History. This case and others which Balter alone uncovered are listed as “A #STEMToo Rogue’s Gallery of sexual harassers, predators, and bullies in the sciences” on Balter’s blog.
Kurin’s lawsuit is clearly frivolous, but I know myself how unjust justice can be. The person with more money and better lawyers often wins, i.e., unless the press reports.
I myself was sued and sentenced several times, and even in the appeal hearings, found guilty of slandering the work of trachea transplant surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, and specifically his acolyte, Philipp Jungebluth, whose surgeon career in Germany must never be tainted by my quoting from their past manuscripts. Another court trial I faced was against Macchiarini’s former colleagues Heike and Thorsten Walles, where I quoted from a book about their own trachea transplants. There, I got away with a “settlement” because a German TV crew was present in the court room. Even if their story never aired as such, I think it helped. In Jungebluth’s case, all media stayed away as if I had leprosity, and I stood all alone a trial which took one bizarre turn after another into beyond Kafka-esque. The judges were free to lie, cheat and question my ethnic background, because they (literally) dictated what gets recorded, and no press was there to witness it.
This is why I publish here a letter from Balter to fellow journalists. Every bit of publicity helps to protect press freedom, every journalist appearing in the court audience will move the judge towards siding with the truth and the civil rights. Journalists keeping silent wilfully allow abuse and injustice to flourish.
Good luck, Michael. I wish I could help more.
My memo to journalists
By Michael Balter
I hope you are doing well.
I wanted to give you a few brief details about the lawsuit that was filed against me last week by Danielle Kurin, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
As you know, for the past five years, I have been reporting on #MeToo cases in academia, especially the sciences. My first story, in 2016 for Science, led to the forced resignation of the curator for human origins at the American Museum of Natural History, who was accused of sexual assault and harassment.
Since then I have reported on several dozen cases, first for The Verge and then on my personal blog. Last year, the Columbia Journalism Review published a piece explaining why I had taken to my blog to do these stories, for no pay. I am linking to it here as it provides important background to the current situation:
I have also attached the complaint in the defamation suit, filed in the Southern District of New York, in pdf format.
This case raises a number of First Amendment and freedom of the press issues. The first is that Kurin is very unlikely to prevail, as I stand by every word of my reporting, which is based on documents and first hand witnesses, even if some of them have asked for anonymity. As you know, truth is an absolute defense against a defamation action. The following blog post includes my response to the complaint and links to the reporting at issue:
I am recruiting legal counsel this week, and hope that the case can be quickly dismissed. If it is not, however, it is likely to raise even more profound freedom of the press issues. I believe that Kurin and her attorneys will attempt to force me to reveal the identities of my sources, including women who were direct victims of the sexual harassment and assault by Kurin’s partner, Enmanuel Gomez Choque (Kurin was found in a 2016 Title IX at UCSB to have retaliated against the students who reported him, and was subject to a three year administrative leave before returning to work last year.)
I will never, under any circumstances, identify confidential sources under any circumstances without their permission–nor would I ask them to reveal their identities.
I would hope that the court would agree with this First Amendment position and not sanction me for it. But I suspect that it will be the main strategy Kurin and her attorneys will pursue, with hopes of obtaining a default judgement against me.
Needless to say, the issues here affect all journalists everywhere, not to mention the issues raised relevant to the #MeToo movement and whether victims and survivors will be able to speak out without themselves having to fear frivolous, baseless legal actions.
Please let me know if you have any questions about this situation. My main request at this time would be that you take note of the situation, and if you are willing to do so, amplify the news about what could end up being an important case. My pinned Twitter homepage links to the most recent blog update on this.
Balter and Kurin agreed to end the lawsuit with a settlement. Balter explains:
“None of my reporting about Danielle Kurin will be deleted, retracted, corrected, revised, or clarified in any way. […]
In settling the case, Danielle Kurin and I made a trade, in which each of us gave up something we wanted. For her part, Kurin (and UCSB) agreed to lift the protective order on a document I consider to be the most important of all the thousands of pages we received, the Letter of Censure in which UCSB formally charged and reprimanded Kurin for her misconduct in 2015/2016.
For my part, I have agreed not to write or report about Kurin ever again after the publication of this final blog post.“
Under the settlement, Balter was able to publish this Written Censure: