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Scientist Kevin Folta files GMO libel lawsuit against NYT

By Joan Conrow

Dr. Kevin Folta

University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta has filed a defamation suit against the New York Times and its reporter Eric Lipton, claiming his academic reputation was unfairly tarnished, his health harmed and his personal safety jeopardized by a “scandalous” article published Sept. 6, 2015.

Folta, an avid science educator and chairman of the University of Florida horticultural sciences department, contends that Lipton and the NYT intentionally “misrepresented him as a covertly paid operative” of Monsanto in order to further their own “anti-GMO agenda.” The NYT article had identified him, for example, as an “aggressive biotech proponent with financial ties to Monsanto,” a claim Folta strongly refutes.

Folta, reached at a conference in Belgium, told the Alliance for Science that he filed the lawsuit both to stop the “spiral of silence” that such reporting creates among other academics and also to regain his reputation.

“When you’re portrayed as trading lobbying for grant money, that’s the kiss of death,” Folta said. “You realize that you’re the walking dead in your career.”

Folta said other scientists have told him they are now reluctant to speak up publicly on the controversy around GMOs because they feared the harm that could come to them from similar adverse coverage. “This is wrong and it has got to stop,” he added.

The lawsuit contends: “Defendant Lipton not only smeared Dr. Folta, but has almost single-handedly silenced the scientific community from teaching scientists how to communicate.”

Lipton’s article was based on a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests initiated by the anti-GMO group US Right to Know (USRTK) against 40 scientists working in biotechnology at public universities. The defamation suit contends that Lipton used emails collected under the FOIA requests “to help spread the organic industries’ false narrative” about genetic engineering in agriculture. 

In a Sept. 16, 2015 radio interview on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, Lipton further contended that Folta was “not a minor part” in Monsanto’s lobbying efforts. Lipton also acknowledged that he was tipped to the story by USRTK and given emails the group had collected before filing his own FOIA requests. USRTK is heavily funded by the Organic Consumers Association.

Lipton did not offer a comment for this story. But he did provide this statement from the NYT public relations office: "Our story was carefully researched and the documents underlying the story were posted online to give readers the opportunity to see for themselves the research we developed and relied upon. We will defend the lawsuit vigorously."

Folta’s complaint also contends that even though the NYT also reported on how the organics industry was funneling money into universities, it treated Folta much more harshly than Charles Benbrook, a former Washington State University whose academic research was almost entirely funded by the organic industry.

Folta’s complaint goes on to claim that Lipton and the NYT not only “consciously disregarded the truth” in writing the story, but amplified the damage to Folta's reputation through their choice of headlines, photographs and placement above the front-page fold on a Sunday, when the NYT has its greatest readership.

The complaint also contends that Lipton defamed Folta and his work by using such terms as “powerful player,” “supposedly unbiased research” and “ivory tower elites” to create a false narrative of “corporate villains and their academic puppets.”

“I got into this [GMO] discussion because I'm a teacher,” Folta told the Alliance for Science.  “I jump at any chance to talk about science and ag, across many topics.  The topic of GE crops is one where the public wants to know more, so that's why I spent so much time there. I'm not "defending GMOs" as he [Lipton] says.  I teach about technology, strengths and weaknesses.  Always did.”

One of Eric Lipton's now-deleted Tweets.

Folta’s academic reputation was not the only casualty of Lipton’s article, the complaint contends. “The Defendants’ article, laden with falsehoods, improper inferences and innuendoes, and knowingly wrong false-light presentations of Dr. Folta, caused tremendous damage to him and his family.”

Folta has received numerous death threats, prompting his university to change his office phone number and remove his name from his lab. The FBI Domestic Terrorism Task Force even got involved at one stage “to ensure the safety of Dr. Folta and his laboratory,” the complaint reveals.

According to Folta, other universities cancelled his speaking engagements and seminars, he was excluded from academic events and discussions, and hundreds of “false, career-damaging articles” citing the NYT as their source began to appear on the internet.

The complaint contends that Lipton later continued his “malicious campaign” against Folta on Twitter, while blocking Folta from seeing Lipton’s own Twitter feed. The Tweets have since been deleted.

As a result of the defendants’ actions, the complaint alleges, “Dr. Folta has also experienced various severe physical manifestations of his fear, anxiety and concern, including but not limited to, insomnia, nausea, weight loss, cardiac events and extreme anxiety.”

Folta is seeking financial damages “in an amount that will effectively punish the defendants for their conduct and deter them and others similarly situated from similar acts in the future.”

 

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