Trial By Error: Hey Bristol, Where Is My Cease and Desist Letter?

By David Tuller, DrPH

Earlier today, I e-mailed the following letter to Sue Paterson, University of Bristol’s Director of Legal Services, to clarify whether or not I had been sent a cease and desist letter (to cease and desist what, exactly?). Professor Esther Crawley made this claim at her public talk last Friday. I have never received any such letter. I cc’d the office of the university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady.


Dear Ms. Paterson,

I attended Professor Esther Crawley’s interesting talk at the University of Exeter on Friday, November 17th. During the question period, I introduced myself and politely asked her why she had accused me of libel and then failed to respond to my e-mail requests that she document this serious allegation. I was immediately asked to leave the room, which I did promptly and without fuss.

Before I left, however, Professor Crawley told me this: You have been so unbelievably defamatory and unprofessional that I had to get my university to send you a cease and desist letter. As with her false charge of libel, she provided no documentation or evidence that anything I wrote was inaccurate or in error, which is of course necessary to sustain an accusation of defamation. (In contrast, calling me unprofessional is obviously well within Professor Crawley’s rights, even if I disagree.)

More significantly, her statement that Bristol had sent me a cease and desist letter was certainly news to me. I have received no such letter from Bristol, either by e-mail or by post. In our previous e-mail exchange involving my complaint to Bristol about Professor Crawley’s public accusation of libellous blogging, you made no reference to a cease and desist letter. Nor did you mention having sent such a letter in our more recent e-mail exchange involving my freedom of information request related to Professor Crawley’s ethically challenged school absence study.

I am writing now because it is obviously important to clarify this matter and set the public record straight as soon as possible. Did Bristol send me a cease and desist letter, or not? If Bristol sent me a letter that I did not receive, please let me know exactly when it was sent, where it was sent, and the name of the person who signed for it upon receipt, if anyone did. And please e-mail a copy to me immediately, so I understand what it is that Bristol expects me to cease and desist from. If Bristol did not send me a cease and desist letter, I suggest you inform Professor Crawley of that fact.

In our brief exchange, Professor Crawley also mentioned the notion of consulting with the police in relation to my activities. The clear implication to those attending the event was that I have engaged in behavior that poses some sort of danger or threat to Professor Crawley. Any objective observer of the situation would recognize that this implication is not only utterly preposterous but, like her unwarranted libel and defamation accusations, potentially harmful to my professional reputation. Last time I checked, writing vigorous commentary, seeking explanations for unsupported libel charges, and appearing at a public lecture to ask a polite but tough question are not criminal activities in the U.K., even if Professor Crawley might wish that they were.

As I suggested in a previous e-mail to you, someone from Bristol’s legal department should sit down with Professor Crawley and explain very, very clearly that accusing people–and in this case me–of being libellous and defamatory without providing an iota of evidence of error or inaccuracy is not acceptable. She has now done this in public on at least three separate occasions. She is certainly skating on thin legal ice.

I have repeatedly invited Professor Crawley to send me her full response to my criticisms, promising to post it on Virology Blog at whatever length she chooses. I have also repeatedly offered to correct any mistakes or errors that she can document. It is obviously her decision whether or not to take me up on this, but her refusal to do so suggests that she prefers to insult critics rather than engage in robust debate about the self-evident and glaring flaws in her work.

I have stated before that I have no plans to sue Professor Crawley. But I also have no plans to cease and desist from analyzing and commenting on her research and her public presentations as I see fit. I have every right, as a journalist and public health academic, to make my case as forcefully as I choose. Professor Crawley obviously has every right to find my approach unpleasant, distasteful and offensive. But she apparently has serious difficulty distinguishing between opinions she dislikes and statements that are libelous and defamatory. I trust Bristol’s legal department is not operating under similar misconceptions or delusions.

In summary, if Bristol has previously sent me a cease and desist letter, please forward me a copy immediately. If not, I would certainly like an explanation as to why Professor Crawley would make such a false statement at a public event.


David Tuller, DrPH
Senior Fellow in Public Health and Journalism
Center for Global Public Health
School of Public Health
University of California, Berkeley

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