“Nerd’s Version of a Fist Fight” Doesn’t Support Injunction Against Blogger–Santilli v. Van Erp

Santilli claims to have developed a telescope that can detect antimatter. Van Erp is dubious about that claim. Van Erp ran a blog that included posts like “The Continuing Stupidity of Ruggero Santilli” and “More Santilli Shenanigans.” The court says:

These posts inspired viewers’ comments, which read like a nerd’s version of a fist fight…Mostly the comments are a pseudo slug-fest between Van Erp in one corner and Frank Stone [allegedly a pseudonym adopted by Santilli] in the other

Santilli claims the blog posts thwarted his efforts to solicit investors in his telescope invention. The court rejects Santilli’s request for a preliminary injunction, saying that it’s not available for defamation claims and there isn’t a sufficient showing of tortious interference. As the court aptly says, “Prior restraints are the most serious and intolerable of First Amendment infringements. Plaintiffs offer no extraordinary circumstance to justify overriding the strong public policy against imposing a prior restraint on speech.”

On the defamation claim, the court gives wide berth to the rough-and-tumble world of blogs and favorably cites the presence of supporting links:

Read in context, a reasonable reader would recognize Van Erp’s posts as inviting intellectual rivals to engage in a scientific disagreement. Labeling Santilli a “mad professor,” and a “fringe scientist,” are subjective assessments of Santilli’s work and not readily capable of being proven true or false….Van Erp includes links to Santilli-created content – websites and articles of Santilli’s original research – and links to other primary sources he consulted in forming his (often scathing) rebuttal. Under Florida law, commentary or opinion based on accurate facts set forth in an article “are not the stuff of libel.”

The court summarizes:

At bottom, this quarrel between Santilli and Van Erp arises from both sides’ research into theories that are almost 100 years old regarding how to reconcile combined quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of relativity. In this context, and considering the cutting-edge nature of Santilli’s research into antimatter’s theoretical applications, a reasonable reader would expect zealous debate. Significantly, readers were invited to respond to Van Erp’s criticism of Santilli as a part of an interactive online discussion. Some of these comments were favorable to Santilli’s scientific theories, some were not. The media vehicle Van Erp chose – blog posts on his personal website – is popular for just this type of debate, and is the type of online forum where a reasonable person expects to find controversy and accompanying rhetoric

It sounds like the judge might actually enjoy watching nerdy virtual fist fights on the blogs every now and then.

Case citation: Santilli v. Van Erp, 2018 WL 2172554 (M.D. Fla. magistrate ruling Apr. 20, 2018). On May 10, 2018, the district court judge affirmed the magistrate’s recommendation.