A small nonprofit condemned electric shocks on autistic people. Now it’s facing a lawsuit threat. | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

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A small nonprofit condemned electric shocks on autistic people. Now it’s facing a lawsuit threat.

Zoey Read, credit: Whitney Ingram, Odja LLC

Zoey Read, credit: Whitney Ingram, Odja LLC

  • FIRE defends autistic-led advocacy group against controversial Boston-area institution that was condemned for torture by the United Nations for using electric-shock devices on residents
  • Institution tries to silence the opinions of 900 behavioral professionals

BOSTON, Aug. 30, 2022 — Can a powerful organization bully a critic into silence for condemning the use of electric-shock devices on autistic residents? Not on FIRE’s watch.

Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression demanded the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center drop its threat of litigation against NeuroClastic, an autistic-led advocacy nonprofit. NeuroClastic received the threat of a defamation suit after it published the results of a survey about the Rotenberg Center’s use of electric-shock devices. 

“I was terrified when I got a letter from the Judge Rotenberg Center’s most notorious lawyer,” said NeuroClastic founder and CEO Terra Vance. “But the autistic people at the Judge Rotenberg Center cannot defend themselves — so we will. FIRE believes in the value of our freedom to use our voices, even those of autistic people who do not speak. They understand that we don’t just want to fight back, but that we have to fight back.” 

The Rotenberg Center, an institution that houses autistic and other disabled people as young as five, is infamous for its use of devices that administer electric shocks to residents through a remote control. This practice is so notorious that it was condemned by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.

In August 2021, NeuroClastic evaluated the views of professionals in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis regarding the Rotenberg Center’s use of electric-shock devices to program autistic people’s behavior. The findings, which were published on NeuroClastic’s website, note that 89% of surveyed professionals were “strongly opposed” to the electric-shock devices used by the Rotenberg Center.

On April 27, the Rotenberg Center sent NeuroClastic a cease-and-desist letter arguing that seven statements in the article were defamatory. It threatened to sue NeuroClastic for damages if it did not permanently and immediately delete the objectionable statements. 

“The Rotenberg Center is trying to bully a critic, a small nonprofit, into silence,” said FIRE attorney Gabe Walters. “FIRE doesn’t give in to bullies — we stand up to them.”

NeuroClastic stands by all statements made in the article, barring one. At the request of a survey respondent, NeuroClastic edited the article to lower its estimate of the power of the shocks from 10 to six times more powerful than that of a stun gun, to account for variations in power among stun guns and differences among shock devices at the Rotenberg Center. However, this survey respondent also notes the Rotenberg Center’s most powerful electric-shock device is 18 times more powerful than a stun gun. 

The Rotenberg Center’s use of electric-shock devices on autistic people has received widespread media attention, and the Rotenberg Center has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying state and federal governments and suing the Food and Drug Administration to continue to use the devices. 

“NeuroClastic is just one of countless organizations that have called for an end to the use of these devices,” said Zoey Read, a member of NeuroClastic’s advisory board. “It is thus both regrettable and inexplicable that the Rotenberg Center has chosen to target NeuroClastic in an attempt to silence them. NeuroClastic is an autistic-led nonprofit working in the interests of autistic people, a population already marginalized.”

COURTESY PHOTOS OF ZOEY READ

Because the Rotenberg Center is well-known for its use of the devices, the First Amendment requires that if it sues for defamation, it must prove by clear and convincing evidence that NeuroClastic knew its statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. Additionally, defamation only applies to statements of fact. Opinions, including opinions on electric-shock therapy, are not actionable in a defamation suit.

FIRE’s letter explains that the threatened defamation claims are meritless and puts the Rotenberg Center on notice to preserve all future records of the use of the electric-shock devices given its threat of further legal action. Additionally, FIRE notes that an apology from the Rotenberg Center and retraction of its litigation threat is warranted.

“Just because the Rotenberg Center doesn’t like what NeuroClastic has to say, doesn’t mean their critiques are defamatory,” said Walters. “The Rotenberg Center wants NeuroClastic to cease and desist, but NeuroClastic and FIRE won’t cease or desist in our advocacy for free expression.”

Today’s letter marks one of FIRE’s efforts as counsel defending the expressive rights of off-campus speakers following its June expansion beyond higher education. In addition to FIRE, Jeffrey Pyle of Boston firm Prince Lobel represents NeuroClastic.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.

CONTACT:

Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

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