Trial By Error: Bristol’s Complaint to Berkeley

By David Tuller, DrPH

As it turns out, the University of Bristol did complain about me to Berkeley. I found out recently that there has indeed been “private and confidential communication” at a “senior level,” as Sue Paterson, Bristol’s director of legal services, suggested in her thuggish letter to me last month. I haven’t seen this communication so I’m not sure exactly what it entailed, but obviously it involved my actions and behavior towards Bristol personnel (i.e. Professor Esther Crawley), which Ms. Paterson also referenced in her letter to me.

Since Bristol would have sent a cease and desist letter long ago if it had been able to figure out any reasonable grounds to ask me to cease and desist doing what I was doing, I knew that any complaint made to Berkeley would not have taken that form. In her letter to me, Ms. Paterson acknowledged as much; she noted that no cease and desist letter had been sent, either to me or to Berkeley. Of course, Professor Crawley had falsely stated the opposite at the University of Exeter lecture I attended.

I also knew that Bristol could not reasonably complain that I had libeled Professor Crawley. She herself made that accusation and then rejected all my efforts to seek an explanation for the charge. Bristol has likewise not provided me with any evidence of errors that need to be corrected. So it was inconceivable that the university would nonetheless try to convince anyone at Berkeley that I had, in fact, written libellous blogs.

I thought perhaps Bristol might complain that I had attended Professor Crawley’s Exeter lecture and asked a question, but that also seemed highly unlikely. It was a public lecture, and I posed my question politely; then I left the room as soon as I was asked. Given that Professor Crawley invoked the possibility of calling the police about me, she might have perceived and described the incident differently. But Bristol knew there was a video of the interaction. I assumed they would not want to characterize what transpired in a way that could easily be disproved.

By deduction, the only other possible complaint I could imagine was that Bristol would characterize my tone and actions as somehow unfair or mean. Moreover, Ms. Paterson’s letter to me had referenced the close and valued collaborative relationship” between Bristol and Berkeley. I assumed Bristol might try to use any such connections as leverage in asking Berkeley to discipline me in some way.

In any event, whatever was mentioned in these senior level communications, I am pleased to report that Berkeley, unlike Bristol–has behaved as befits an academic institution. Those responsible for reviewing the matter have reviewed the matter and have confirmed that I have done nothing wrong. The university has affirmed my right, as a public health academic and journalist, to pursue my current efforts.

That means I can continue to express my strong opinions involving scientific research and related matters without having to worry about unwarranted and inappropriate threats targeting my academic position. The same applies to attending public lectures and asking questions in a respectful manner, even tough questions that might be unpleasant to the person being asked.

So let’s move on. Next week: My response to BMJ Open‘s description of the debate over Professor Crawley’s ethically challenged school absence study. The journal’s accounting of the events was included as part of the agenda for the November meeting of a regular forum hosted by the Committee on Publication Ethics. I will explain why BMJ Open‘s statement is inaccurate and misleading–an apparent effort to whitewash its dereliction of editorial oversight in publishing research that cited specious reasons for exempting itself from ethical review.

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