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Taiwan scientist’s findings did not constitute defamation

Posted on behalf of Michele Catanzaro.

The legal odyssey of Taiwanese environmental engineer Ben-Jei Tsuang has come to an end, as the petrochemical company that had accused him of libel did not appeal an earlier ‘not guilty’ verdict by the legally-required deadline of 20 November. The company had claimed that Tsuang’s release of data linking a petrochemical plant to increased cancer rates amounted to libel.

Tsuang, an environmental engineer at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, presented evidence of correlations between FPG’s emissions and cancer in a scientific conference in December 2010 and in a press conference in November 2011. A paper containing these results is currently submitted to Atmospheric Environment.

In April 2012, two units of the FPG group filed a civil suit against Tsuang for libel, asking for US$1.33 million in damages and for him to publish an apology in four major newspapers; they also filed a criminal complaint that accused him of defamation. In response, more than 1,000 academics, including Nobel chemistry laureate Lee Yuan Tseh, signed an open letter in support of Tsuang (see letter in Chinese).

In findings issued on 4 September, the Taipei District Court ruled in favour of Tsuang in both the civil and the criminal case.

The court subsequently issued its reasoning, in which it deemed Tsuang’s statements as “fair comment on facts subject to public criticism”. The court noted that Tsuang’s arguments would not be considered libellous even if their content were eventually proven to be false. “The content of the defendant’s speech is deeply related to the life, health and safety of the public… and since the FPG affiliates voluntarily engaged in activities that implicate public health, they should be more prepared to tolerate the criticism,” the sentence states.

The company had until 20 November to appeal the court’s rulings, and its apparent decision not to do so effectively closes the case and clears Tsuang of any wrongdoing.

Tsuang has repeatedly said that FPG’s actions are part of a strategy of intimidation to keep scientists quiet. “The case is over, but the struggle is not finished,” he says.

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