Sylvia Browne: Enemy of Free Speech

I have written previously about the “psychics” so popular in our culture, whose pretense of being able to speak to the dead and otherwise gain knowledge through supernatural powers wins them wealth and accolades from a credulous public and a shallow, sensationalist media, despite the total lack of convincing evidence to date that any of them can do what they say they can do.

One of the worst of the lot is Sylvia Browne. After agreeing on national television to take James Randi’s million-dollar challenge to prove her powers, she subsequently reneged on that agreement and has been avoiding it ever since. Browne’s alleged powers have failed her spectacularly on numerous instances, including when she erroneously claimed on the air that the victims of the Sago mine catastrophe would be found alive, although ultimately 11 of the 12 perished, and when she falsely told Shawn Hornbeck’s grieving parents that their son was dead, when in reality he had been alive all the time and was rescued from his kidnapper several weeks ago. She also wrongly predicted the discovery of a nicotine addiction vaccine, the return of American soldiers from Iraq, and the electoral defeat of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, and told a 9/11 widow that her firefighter husband had drowned, in addition to many other errors.

In the past, blunders such as these would have made little difference: skeptics would have dutifully cataloged them and pointed them out to anyone who would listen, their effort would have been almost totally ignored by the masses who idolized psychic claimants like Browne, and media pundits and book publishers would have dismissed these annoying facts and continued to seek out and promote Browne and others like her. After all, what really matters in popular culture is not the truth or accuracy of a person’s claims, but only whether enough people believe those claims and are willing to support them – with their votes, their wallets, or whatever else. The lack of widespread understanding of the principles of critical thinking in our society makes it easy for psychic claims to take root. People’s desire to believe in supernatural powers and an afterlife leads them to concentrate on the hits and forget the misses. And media empires driven by profit and spectacle have no interest in debunking popular delusions and fallacies, but only in showing people what they most want to see, which will attract the most eyeballs and therefore the most advertiser dollars.

As I said, that was the way it was in the past. To a large extent, that is the way it still is. But there are some very encouraging signs that skepticism and critical thinking are finally gaining a foothold, however tenuous, in the media. On several recent occasions, Browne’s claims were forcefully challenged on national television – mostly by James Randi, to whose tireless efforts we all owe a debt of gratitude – on shows such as Anderson Cooper 360 and Larry King Live, and it seems she is feeling the heat. Hence, the blustery legal threat letter Browne’s lawyers have sent to StopSylviaBrowne.com, an excellent website that keeps track of her blunders. The letter claims that “Sylvia Browne” is a registered trademark and that the anti-Browne website is infringing her trademark by using it.

These claims are, of course, utter and complete nonsense. The bedrock legal principle of fair use specifically protects the use of trademarked names and logos for purposes of commentary, criticism and parody, as Stanford University’s page on fair use explains:

If you are commenting upon or critiquing a copyrighted work — for instance, writing a book review — fair use principles allow you to reproduce some of the work to achieve your purposes.

Browne’s threat letter is an especially risible and ridiculous disregard for the principles of fair use. If claims like this were accepted by the court system, it would be impossible to criticize any person or corporation that held a trademark on its name, because merely to mention that name without permission would be an infringement of the trademark holder’s rights. Such a dramatically expansive interpretation of the law would completely destroy the right of free speech.

But, as I said, that is not the law. Browne’s claims are without legal foundation, something of which her lawyers must be well aware. Clearly, the letter was not sent out of a realistic hope of prevailing in court, but rather was sent in the hope that their target did not know his rights and would back down in the face of intimidating language by a much larger and better-funded adversary. (It brings to mind the incident when Fox News sued political humorist Al Franken over his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, with Fox asserting that it owned the three words “fair and balanced” and that those words could not be used in that order without its permission. This claim actually did go to court, and was promptly laughed back out of it by the judge.)

Fortunately, that was not the case. Robert Lancaster, the author of StopSylviaBrowne.com, is well aware of his rights and has held firm, for which I commend him. His courageous and principled defense of the truth against cowardly tactics of intimidation deserves to be widely known, which is why I have written this entry. It also needs to be more widely known that Sylvia Browne is so fearful of open criticism and exposure of her blunders that she would rather try to silence her critics with lawsuits than respond to them. Such tactics are reprehensible and deserve nothing but scorn from good citizens and friends of free speech everywhere.

Addendum: After posting this, I found a resource from the invaluable Electronic Frontier Foundation, a steadfast defender of online free speech, addressing the exact claim made by Browne’s lawyers and pointing out that settled precedent flatly contradicts it:

Can I use a trademark in my blog’s name or in the title of a blog post?

Yes, if it is relevant to the subject of your discussion and does not confuse people into thinking the trademark holder endorses your content. Courts have found that non-misleading use of trademarks in URLs and domain names of critical websites is fair. (Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp. v. Faber, URL http://www.compupix.com/ballysucks; Bosley Medical Institute v. Kremer, domain name www.bosleymedical.com). Companies can get particularly annoyed about these uses because they may make your post appear in search results relating to the company, but that doesn’t give them a right to stop you.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex Weaver

    If claims like this were accepted by the court system, it would be impossible to criticize any person or corporation that held a trademark on its name, because merely to mention that name without permission would be an infringement of the trademark holder’s rights.

    Shhh! You’ll George W. Bush ideas! x.x

  • Void1

    What happened to this post? It disappeared for a few days before re-appearing. Were you trying to make a rumour that Sylvia Browne shut the post down?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    My website host had some sort of server hiccup, I think. When I checked Daylight Atheism yesterday morning before going to work, I noticed that all the data since January 31 – posts, comments – had somehow disappeared. I filed a support ticket with my host, but by the time I got home, the missing data was back. I still don’t know what happened, but I’m definitely going to be more careful about making daily backups from now on.

  • Jack Norton

    Just to be fair, though Sylvia barely deserves it, there is a nicotine vaccine called NicVax in the FDA approval process. This will basically create an immune response that will keep nicotine from entering the brain. Still, hardly proof of being “psychic”.

  • Michelle

    Don’t forget the time on Montel when a couple asked how their daughter died, and Sylvia matter-of-factly said “She was shot!” The couple understandably looked incredulous, then went on to explain how their daughter had just collapsed in her room, and the autopsy couldn’t reveal any reason for her death. You should’ve heard her and Montel trying to get her out of THAT one. When she was told the autopsy showed nothing, she said “I don’t care…[blah, blah]” – as if she knew more than the person who performed the autopsy! She’s such a fraud, and not even a well-spoken one at that. She always strikes me as someone who’s on the edge of a mental breakdown – and sounds as if she’s smoked 6 packs of cigarettes a day since her teens. I wouldn’t trust her to walk my dog, never mind give me “psychic readings”!

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    As sad as I am to admit it, I did hold some belief in psychics for a while after giving up on deities. While I had my doubts before I saw it, the episode that Michelle relates was definitely the last nail in the coffin for that belief…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    An update: the StopSylviaBrowne website has posted a response to her frivolous legal threat letter. It does my heart good to see someone like Robert Lancaster standing up for their rights without apology against a bully. Even better, Lancaster’s letter brings up the threat of an anti-SLAPP countersuit, not to mention the possibility of having disciplinary charges brought against her lawyers with the state bar for filing a suit they knew to be meritless.

    Clearly, Mr. Lancaster knows very well that the best thing to do when attacked by someone with no credibility is to hit back even harder. I’m glad to see him standing firm, and though I’m sure Browne and her lawyers are going to drop this matter as swiftly as possible, I’m going to contact him and see if he’d accept a donation to defray any legal expenses he might already have accrued. I encourage others to do likewise.

    You should’ve heard her and Montel trying to get her out of THAT one. When she was told the autopsy showed nothing, she said “I don’t care…[blah, blah]” – as if she knew more than the person who performed the autopsy!

    No surprise there: when a “psychic” is caught out in an obvious error, their predictable (hah!) response is to stand firm, no matter how ridiculous it makes them look. To do anything else would be to admit their powers have failed them, and while they may mouth words of false humility on occasion, owning up to specific blunders seems to be the one thing they almost never do. Probably that’s because doing so would make it obvious that they were just going with what they thought was a safe, or at least safely unfalsifiable, guess.

  • James Bradbury

    Probably that’s because doing so would make it obvious that they were just going with what they thought was a safe, or at least safely unfalsifiable, guess.

    It sound to me like that’s exactly what she didn’t do, hence the public embarassment. Most “psychics” are at least smart enough to stay away from being tested properly. But that is exactly what we should encourage people to demand.

    Search YouTube for James Randi and you’ll find some entertaining clips including Yuri Geller – “I’m not feeling strong tonight” and Peter Popoff getting rumbled – one of Randi’s best.

  • Rob

    Here is some of my own forecasting. Sylvia will make a big error exposing her fraud, and in the end result will be the doom of the Montel Williams show. Then Sylvia, and Rosie O’Donell will start their own show called “Intuitive Thought From a Big Mouth”. Here is a poll if you believe in Sylvia or not: http://www.apopularitycontest.com/display_poll.php?ID=157

  • http://ethaninsineratehymnmittel.blogspot.com/ Insineratehymn

    The case of Sylvia Browne suing people just for criticizing her reminds me of another group that does exactly that: Scientology.


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