by Paul Alan Levy
Popehat carried a story yesterday about a demand letter from a "senior attorney" for the US Department of Health and Human Services named Dale Berkeley (who pompously signed himself as "Ph.D. / J.D."), complaining about two lame parodies on a web site that opposes Alcoholic Anonymous and asserts that there is no such thing as alcohol addiction or drug addiction. The demand letter asserts that a parody interview with an HHS official, and a parody cease-and-desist letter about the interview purporting to be from another HHS official, denouncing the interview post as a sham, might mislead readers into believing that they are real.
I suppose there is room for debate about the characterization of the interview blog post as misleading; but the parodic cease-and-desist letter itself labels the interview as a sham, so it is hard to understand why a federal agency would think it worthwhile to complain about the interview post and request either removal or a disclaimer. The parody cease-and-desist letter is a disclaimer.
Even worse, the letter goes on to assert that the posts are "defamatory" and could subject the blogger to liability. The propriety of this part of the letter is not at all in doubt. The government itself cannot be defamed; that much was settled by the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts. Although individual public officials can sue for defamation, assuming that they can prove actual malice, the cause of action is for them personally, so we might wonder why a government lawyer is threatening libel liability when the damages would not be payable to the government itself.
I attempted to reach Berkeley to ask such questions, but his office's secretary left me on hold for several minutes; when I called back, I found my way to his extension, but the phone was answered and then hung up.