Responses to the John Gray situation

Firstly thanks to the people who left comments, I like any input at all. And to the people who emailed with a advice and help, thank you too. Roger has helpfully pointed out the following.

The only complete and unconditional defense to a libel claim is proof that the statement is true. Quoting a source accurately isn’t enough; the defendant must convince a jury that his statements or the material in the statements he or she quoted are substantially correct.

Libel suits usually result from stories that allege crime, fraud, dishonesty, immoral or dishonorable conduct, or stories which defame the subject professionally, causing loss of reputation or financial strength to an individual or business.

In most states, public officials or figures as plaintiffs are required to prove negligence or actual malice on the part of the publisher. To prove actual malice, a person needs to show that at the time of publication or broadcast, those responsible for the story either knew it was not true or had a reckless disregarded for the truth.

It would appear that, prima facia, I have no proof that the statement made is true. Whether or not I have damaged John Gray financially, or caused loss of his reputation, is questionable. It is in the final quote that I am most interested. As a public figure, could it be proven by Gray that my intent was actual malice, that I “knew it was not true” or had “reckless disregard for the truth”.

I would think not. My intent was not malice, and I did believe the story as read to be true, and by responding to the article I read I do not think I had a reckless disregard.

It is noted however, that in the letter sent to me, all of these claims are made directly.

Another link from Roger is a list of libel/defamation precedents. He also points out the award of a $3 million award to a University Professor, after having been defamed on a student’s website, and also this little snippet of quotes from John Gray himself.

To the comments:

Chris Gulker has blogged about the post, and makes some interesting remarks:

Gray’s PhD is from Columbia Pacific University, which has been called a “degree mill” by the State Attorney and which was shut down by the State of California in 1999. His MA and BA come from Maharishi European Research University. Personally, I think Gavin’s characterization is reasonable. Given is a lecturer at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall: you don’t usually associate Cal profs with stifling free speech…

Frank thinks I should treat myself as a newspaper and just publish a retraction and correction. John sees the lighter side, and his thinking appears to be along the same lines as I have been thinking so far. Well maybe similar anyway. Raptor feels that a campaign might be in order, and spots the subtle difference between mine and Deborah’s post. Jmc thinks I should ask for all the relevant information relating to John Gray’s Phd – I just think this might be a non-starter.

Karlin spots exactly the crux of the letter sent to me. Gray is arguing that his qualifications are legitimate because, at the time, one of the Institutions in question was recognised. Karlin continues:

Having read through your post, and the lawyer’s letter, I think the issue here is not so much the repetition of information on Deborah’s weblog, which is fact, but the use of the word “fraud”.

What the lawyers say is technically correct. He did get the degree from what was a recognised university. He isn’t making up the degree, although one can draw plenty of implications about the rigours of getting such a degree and that way in which the state of CA viewed the institution. Notably, they do not dispute the later closure of the university etc.

But Gray’s listing the degree as a degree he has earned isn’t fraudulent (though saying he had one when he didn’t, would be). Using that word has very specific implications — an intention to deceive by stating as truth that which is not — and would almost surely be construed as libellous in the context in which it is used. This would be the likely interpretation of California libel law (which I had to study in high school/university for publications I worked for in Calif), and under Irish law it would be the same.

The wise thing to do IMHO is print a retraction. Newspapers do this all the time. You can within the context of the clarification state that he has a degree etc etc and go ahead and add the other context for the nature of the institution as described by Deborah as that is further factual information. This is just not worth contesting as it would be seen by the courts here or there as pretty cut and dried. It is just unfortunate that this single entry came to their attention.

As a blog publisher, every blogger becomes liable under international libel laws for statements made on a blog, because it is public publication, so to speak, designed to be read by an audience at large. Pursuing a blogger so far seems pretty rare. Unfortunately for personal publishing, bloggers carry the legal responsibilities of large publishers but rarely have the same legal resources. Before notifying press etc about this I would very much advise consulting with a lawyer as to whether publishing a retraction would curtail their ability to go ahead and sue for libel anyway. If you could be pursued, there’s no point in stinging them into actually suing as they would almost certainly win and the California and Irish courts are prone to awarding very large damages plus costs.

Karlin raises all the central points. A quick look for a definition of “fraud” gets this:

1. fraud — (intentional deception resulting in injury to another person)
2. imposter, impostor, pretender, fake, faker, fraud, sham, shammer, pseudo, pseud, role player — (a person who makes deceitful pretenses)
3. fraud, fraudulence, dupery, hoax, humbug, put-on — (something intended to deceive; deliberate trickery intended to gain an advantage)

Here lies the issue, some people believe that Gray’s claim to a Phd could be defined as “deliberate trickery intended to gain an advantage”. And in referring back to an article we find this:

But, Dr. John Bear, an author and top expert on correspondence schools, tells Inside Edition that Gray’s doctorate degree is from an unaccredited school, which is problematic. “It holds a lot less weight.” He believes that the Ph.D. almost certainly helped Gray sell his books. “People look for respectability,” Bear explains. “Would he reach 18 billion in sales with the non-Ph.D.? I would guess not.

Does that constitute “deliberate trickery intended to gain an advantage”? Only if it was deliberate on the part of John Gray. And of course it has already been argued that he has no need to trick anyone, his Phd is, apparently, legitimate.

23 Responses to “Responses to the John Gray situation”

  1. JBL says:

    There is no way you will be found to have committed libel under these circumstances — it’s notoriously difficult to win a libel case. Really, in America, threatening to sue for libel is only a bully tactic for people who don’t want to go through the effort of winning a court case. Frankly, it would probably hurt his reputation more to have the case then to not. I say ignore him. Or try and get a lot of bloggers to make fun of him :)

  2. Under American law, a conviction for libel would be very unlikely regardless the facts of the case, given Gray’s status as a public figure. However, if you are blogging from Ireland, a suit could be filed in Irish court. Since, as I am given to understand, there is no statutory definition of libel in Irish law, the bar for libel is set by common law and judicial dicta, which tend not to treat public figures differently than private.

    However, your basic charge — that Gray did not graduate from any accredited universities — is true, if the secondary sources are to be believed. The truth, as has been pointed out, is by definition a valid defense against all libel charges.

    You should, in any case, consult a lawyer in the event a suit is filed.

  3. Charles says:

    I posted this over on Kevin Drum’s site, but I figured I should post it here so you can see it directly (apologies for the redundancy for people coming here from that site).

    There’s only one possible response. Ask “Doctor” Gray to demonstrate levitation to you personally. If he can perform yogic levitation then you will accept his “advanced degree” from Maharishi Research University as valid.

    I am absolutely not kidding. I live about 25 miles from Fairfield, Iowa, the home of Maharishi University. I deal with delusional Maharishi cultists all the time. All their advanced degrees involve instruction in levitation. I have a video from local news showing the alleged “levitiation,” if there’s enough interest, I’ll put it up on my blog. Suffice to say it is not levitation unless you consider flapping your arms hard enough to lift your butt a couple inches off the ground to be “levitation.”

  4. Johnnie C. says:

    Gavin:

    Gray is an goddamn idiot and his “advanced degrees” are pure shite.

    My advice (as a friend, not as an attorney, tho I happen to be one):

    1) Stop posting your own analysis of what you said. That will only get used against you.

    2) Your view that Gray is a fraud is completely reasonable and supportable given the fact that Gray has inflated his credentials. Has Gray made it clear on his bullshit books that his stupid colllege was for morons who couldn’t get into real colleges? That his lame ass college was closed down when California passed a bona fide accredidation law? Of course not. He wants people to believe he is intelligent. But he’s not.

    3) Gray is a fraud. There is I said. Fraud, fraud, fraud, fraud. Go ahead and sue me Gray. Then not only bloggers but THE WHOLE COUNTRY will find out that your diplomas are worth less than used toilet paper.

    4) I’d like to add that Hoagland guy who writes that garbage about NASA conspiracies etc. to my list of fraudulent nincumpoops which is headed by Mr. Gray. Hoagland is a lying idiot who makes shit up to get attention.

  5. Might I point out that there is a difference between “recognized” and “accredited”, at least when it comes to US institutions of higher learning?

    As far as I know, “recognized” is a meaningless term: the important term is “accredited”, meaning that the institution has been certified by one of the six regional accreditation agencies as offering a higher-education degree (in the case of California, the Western Association of Schools & Colleges).

    Columbia Pacific University was always non-accredited, and was shut down by the State of California as a “diploma mill”. You have nothing to apologize for, in my opinion.

  6. peter jung says:

    Gavin,

    Kevin Drum is blogging about this situation over at his new site hosted by Washington Monthly.

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/

    My prediction– As news of this snafu spreads around the blogosphere, Mr. Gray and his attorneys will quickly come to the conclusion that this thing is going to cause them more trouble and embarassment than it’s worth….

  7. Chuck says:

    I came across this page while searching for something else. Gray’s lawyers contacted CultNews.com back in November 2003: http://www.cultnews.com/archives/000699.html

  8. BadTux says:

    Okay, first things first: Jurisdiction. To have jurisdiction in California court, Mr. Gray must prove that a) the supposedly defamatory remarks were published in the state of California, and b) the supposedly defamatory remarks caused damage to Mr. Gray in the state of California, and c) Mr. Gray or the publisher of the defamatory remarks maintains ties to the state of California such that California could legitimately claim jurisdiction (i.e., Mr. Gray lives in California or his corporation is based in California). Without all three of those, a California court will throw it out on jurisdictional grounds.

    Unfortunately, it does appear that Mr. Gray lives in California, so a case in California court would be applicable.

    Okay, assuming Mr. Gray decides to file a claim in a California court, there’s two possibilities: Either the claim is countered, or it is defaulted. If defaulted, Mr. Gray wins, and will be granted a judgment, presumably some amount of money.

    If Mr. Gray wins, he then must apply with an Irish court for enforcement of said judgement, unless you possess property or wages within the United States that the California court could seize to satisfy the judgement. His chances of getting a favorable hearing from an Irish court depends upon whatever reciprocal judgement agreements exist between Ireland and the United States, and upon whether the facts of the case, as presented by the U.S. court as part of the judgement, would consist of protected conduct under Irish law. Judgements in foreign venues which would punish conduct protected under local laws are generally not recognized by the courts of a country. In addition, if it is conduct that Irish courts consider to not have been under the jurisdiction of California, they may take it upon themselves to disregard the judgement. For example, if Irish law says that web pages are published in the location that the writer lives and that all actions must take place in said venue, an Irish court may decide that a judgement in another venue is not enforcible.

    Now, I am not a lawyer in any country, much less Ireland. But I would first contact an Irish lawyer to find out whether a California judgement for libel would be enforced by an Irish court. If not, then you can treat the issue with the disdain it deserves (as long as you never intend to possess property or employment within the boundaries of the United States, at which point the California court could directly enforce its judgement by seizing said property or garnishing said wages). If it would be enforcible, on the other hand, then things become more iffy.

    The international aspects of the Internet sure make things entertaining on the legal front, don’t they?! As an American, a judgement for libel against me in an Irish court would be utterly unenforcible. American courts have repeatedly ruled that rights granted to us by our Constitution are not subject to removal by American courts at the behest of a foreign power. Since I have no property or connection to Ireland, the Irish court would be most probably reject the case out of hand anyhow as a waste of time (since they’d know that even if the plaintiff won, the judgement would be utterly unenforcible). California courts, on the other hand, will accept a lawsuit against a ham sandwich. The question of whether that is a problem for you depends upon whether an Irish court would enforce said judgement.

  9. BadTux says:

    Someone else brought up another issue: Where is your website hosted? If hosted within the jurisdiction of a California court, it could be hit with an injunction shutting it down. If that’s Gray’s purpose, he will “win” even if never able to enforce any judgement against you in Ireland.

  10. skippy says:

    dr. gray may want to send out cease and desist letters to:

    cultnews.com at http://www.rickross.com/reference/gray/gray2.html

    buzz.weblogs.com at http://buzz.weblogs.com/2003/11/14

    about.com at http://atheism.about.com/b/a/2003_11_15.htm?iam=metaiq&terms=richmond+va+police+report

    and espeically the society for industrial and organizational psychology at http://siop.org/tip/backissues/tipoct98/9Waclawski.htm, which might carry some weight in your defense.

    all of whom are simply reporting the same facts as you.

  11. Gray seems to have anticipated this. He doesn’t mention his undergradaute degree, and I have some difficulty in believing that a “highly respected school” would ever be forced to close.
    I don’t understand California law, but Gray’s site links to http://www.bppve.ca.gov/press_releases/cpuweb_dec2000.htm which mentions, but doesn’t link to http://www.bppve.ca.gov/press_releases/cputime.htm which says

    The initial Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education Reform Act of 1989 went into effect in 1991. Columbia Pacific University (CPU) was given “grandfather” status as an approved, degree-granting institution.
    CPU subsequently submitted its first application for approval to the Council for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education (Council), the predecessor agency of the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education (Bureau).
    After a comprehensive review and assessment, the Council denied CPU’s application on numerous grounds on December 15, 1996. CPU appealed that denial. During the pendency of the appeal, CPU was legally permitted to continue its operations
    Following an evidentiary administrative hearing, an independent administrative law judge upheld the Council’s denial. A final decision and order of denial was issued by the Council on or about June 25, 1997.

    From this, my guess is that there was no law controlling rogue universities prior to 1989, and that extant institutions were granted approved status pending a review. CPU failed its first and only review. So technically, and I stress this is guess work, there were no recognised (by current criteria) institutions prior to 1989. CPU was never “well respected”.

  12. Gavin, take a look at that piece you reference at the bottom. Note that what’s being called into question isn’t Gray, but the worth – NOT validity – of Gray’s degree. That’s fine. What you can’t do is say he is intentionally deceiving people UNLESS you have evidence that he is doing so. If you had an email from him saying “yeah, it was a plan all along to get a cheap off the shelf degree and make millions” you’d have a case for calling him a fraud. But you haven’t.

    The Inside Edition piece is a fine example of how to tread the line carefully. Take a look at this bit:

    Ross recently wrote an article noting that Gray’s bachelors and masters degrees were received from the Maharishi Educational Research Center in Switzerland. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the counselor to the Beatles in the 70s, founded the now defunct school. Higher education associations in the United States do not recognize degrees from the school. Inside Edition has also confirmed that the best-selling author’s Ph.D. was obtained from the Columbia Pacific University in Northern California, which is a correspondence school that has since been shut down by the State of California for allegedly selling worthless diplomas.

    All facts: and facts can’t be libellous. Caling him a fraud, though, isn’t an established fact – and neither can you defend yourself by saying “some people believe” he’s a fraud – repeat a defamation is not protected.

  13. jack yerbody says:

    This whole debacle raises an important issue re blogging in general. When it is so simple to link to a story on another website, or to cut and paste into your own, unless you actually bother to check what you’re linking to you run the risk of repeating a libel – thus making a libellous statement yourself. Some modicum of journalistic integrity (and perhaps five minutes work) could have rejigged the original story into something that wouldnt result in legal action.

    The guy DOES have the degrees he claims; all the bullshit above about whether or not they are credible degrees is missing the point by quite a large margin. As mentioned, the only defence to libel is truth and it is UNTRUE to say that he doesnt hold a BA or MA. What you should have identified is that, for such a famous author, you wouldn’t have expected them to come from the equivalent of the Correspondence College of Tampa.

    From my reading of it, you are prima facie guilty of repeating a libel and are thus fucked. Do yourself a favour and retract your post, apologise, then post an ACCURATE statement of the facts – the guy is a charlatan in that his degrees aren’t worth the paper they are laser-printed on. If you’d bothered your arse in the first place, you wouldn’t have got into this mess.

    Blogging is an excellent way of allowing people with no journalistic training or experience to reach a wide audience. But without a working knowledge of the legal framework that the professionals operate within, situations like this will occur with increasing regularity. Might I recommend a copy of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, or the Irish equivalent?

  14. Gavin, my advice to you is to tell Mr. John Gray to Bring It On.

    If this lady can go after him and not be sued, you can, too:
    http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/women_rebuttal_from_uranus/welcome.htm

    Keep it up! Believe me, the longer this goes on, the uglier it gets for him. Do NOT cave to him! He’s just trying to scare you. Make him pay — expose his past!

    In order to ‘prove’ his case, he’s going to have to submit to the ‘discovery’ process (which essentially involves having interested parties root through the darkest corners of his life), and he does NOT want this stuff to get noised about. I’ve done some crusing of the Net on him, and it looks like having a bogus degree is the LEAST of his sins.

  15. Gavin,

    I’d just like to clarify that I do think should treat your blog as if it were a newspaper but the decision to publish a retraction should be based on what you feel you are happy to stand over, given all the available facts. I quite like Panjack’s suggestion.

  16. Royko says:

    As far as I can tell, all you said is that these degrees are from schools that aren’t accredited, which appears to be perfectly true. As for calling him a fraud (which differs from saying someone has committed legal fraud), do you have to have someone’s IQ results to call him an idiot?

    Anyway, good luck.

  17. Johnnie C. says:

    I just want to reiterate: do NOT kiss the Gray dickhead fraud’s butt in any way. I now see that “Dr.” Phil is getting some crap of his own and with any luck this will be the beginning of a sea change in how people perceive the “information” that is being shoved down their throats by Clear Channel and the rest of the entertainment industry. All these pricks on TV selling snake oil — John Edwards IS A FRAUD FRAUD GRAY IS A FRAUD DR PHIL IS A FRAUD. They thrive on misleading people for the purpose of taking their money and preying on their emotions. Ask Thelma Sixpack about these people — she’ll tell you it’s all real BECAUSE IT’S ON TV. All these a wipe charlatans should have their bowels removed from them and gnawed on by ants while they are alive. GRAY IS A FRAUD GRAY IS LYING SACK OF SHIT HIS BOOK IS FULL OF LIES AND DECEITFUL INACCURATE STATEMENTS. Come get me Gray you stupid stupid prick.

  18. K says:

    Start checking your referrer logs to see how often this law firm’s IP is hitting your site?

    http://samspade.org/t/lookat?a=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.phillaw.com%2F

    66.80.60.21

  19. Gavin says:

    Quite a range of views there – Ill have to blog all about it.

  20. jmc says:

    I read the letter from the lawyers and I checked out the Cal Civil Code – this is a classic piece of lawyer intimidation. Its all crap.

    All that 48a does is limit the amount of damages that can be payed by a news media outlet if they publish a retraction. Nothing else.

    For you this is the only bit of 48a that matters

    (d) “Actual malice” is that state of mind arising from hatred or ill will toward the plaintiff; provided, however, that such a state of mind occasioned by a good faith belief on the part of the defendant in the truth of the libelous publication or broadcast at the time it is published or broadcast shall not constitute actual malice.

    There is a whole bunch more in 48a but what it means is that the letter sent you by the lawyers referring to 48a is junk and can be safely ignored.

    All they can sue you for is libel, the reference to 48a is just a smokescreen, and in a Cal court they would be laughed out of court if they tried to bring a libel case. And if they did you could hit them with a SLAPP.

    I love California. State of 100,000 lawyers.

    I am not a lawyer but I’ve lived in California long enough to have had several run ins with lawyers, so I am used to dealing with junk like this. Once you call their bluff they go away.

    If you need anyone to check out the gory details about the degree mill that issued the PhD I live almost directly across from the Marin County Court House in the Civic Center, so it should be very easy to get at the public records of the various court cases against his alma mater.

  21. As you bolster your defense against incursions by the Gray Attorney Corps, you might browse the Distance Education and Training Council’s FAQs concerning “accredited institutions” [1] because both DETC and the American Council on Education take a dim view on degree mills that service ready-to-go candidates such as those you have previously cited.

    [1] http://www.detc.org/usefulResources.html

  22. Simon McGarr says:

    Hello there,
    The correct response to this letter is to ignore it.

    This is a generic demand. Depending on where your blog is hoted, you are unlikly to fall under any Californian law anyway. But even if you did, the US supreme Court has found that you would have had to make your statement in full knowledge of all contrary facts and gone ahead anyway. Hence their claim that the facts were those which you ‘knew or should have known’ at the time of your posting.

    Even if you were being threatend, which isn’t happening at all anyway as the letter lays out no suggestion of further action being taken, and had to defend the action in Ireland, where libel law is much stricter, you could rely on the defences of justification and fair comment.

    So the thing to do is- do nothing. And if they do ever come back to you with a specific threat speak to your solicitor. It’ll give him or her a good laugh.

    All the best.
    S

  23. Joe Buck says:

    Tell “Dr” Gray to piss off. He doesn’t have a case. However, if he attempts to bring one anyway, let me know, and I’ll contribute to your legal bills (and recruit others to do the same).