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Santilli v. Van Erp

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

May 27, 2018




         This is a defamation action stemming from a series of articles that Defendant, Dutch scientist Pepijn Van Erp, posted on his personal blog. Plaintiffs are a scientist and his wife who research antimatter from their Florida laboratory. Antimatter is the opposite of normal matter: all sub-atomic particles have an equivalent antimatter particle with opposite charge and quantum spin. For example, the electron has an antimatter counterpart called the positron with the same mass as an electron but with a positive charge. See “What is Antimatter, ” Revising the maxim that matter can be neither created nor destroyed, scientists now believe that energy and mass are interchangeable - that when a particle collides with its antiparticle, the two annihilate each other (antimatter annihilation), with their mass being entirely converted into energy. Id. The rub is that scientists barely detect any antimatter in the observable universe. If antimatter is the opposite of matter, shouldn't there be an equal amount of both? This question has stumped nuclear physicists. Antimatter can be artificially generated and studied in huge particle accelerators, but this process is incredibly expensive. See “The Five Greatest Mysteries of Antimatter, ” (Apr. 22, 2009), Enter Plaintiff Ruggero Santilli, who claims to have developed a telescope with a concave lens (rather than convex, as utilized by a traditional telescope) that can detect antimatter (doc. 64, ex. A at 1). He has posted articles about his discovery on the website for his company Thunder Energies and in journals.

         Defendant Pepijn Van Erp finds Santilli's discovery inherently suspect. So much so that Van Erp posted entries to his personal blog ( titled “The Continuing Stupidity of Ruggero Santilli, ” “Finding JV Kadeisvili-or Mailing with Ruggero M. Santilli, ” and “More Santilli Shenanigans.” (doc. 30, exhs. A-C). These posts inspired viewers' comments, which read like a nerd's version of a fist fight. With Santilli's reputation as a cutting-edge research scientist on the line, Plaintiffs sued Defendants in state court in April 2017 (see doc. 2), claiming Defendants' online attacks have defamed Santilli and tortiously interfered with their business of marketing and selling the antimatter telescope (which Thunder Energies dubs the Santilli telescope). Defendants removed the case to this Court.

         Although the discovery deadline was yesterday (see doc. 15), on March 16, 2018, Plaintiffs moved for the third time to preliminarily enjoin Defendants: they ask the Court to order Defendants to revise the title of one blog post and to remove defamatory content from another (doc. 64).[1] After reviewing Plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction (doc. 64), their exhibits in support (Id. at exhs. A-C, Defendants Pepijn Van Erp and Frank Israel's response (doc. 69), and Plaintiffs' operative complaint (doc. 30), I recommend that the Court deny Plaintiffs' motion.

         A. Facts

         In February 2016, Van Erp posted the blog entry “The Continuing Stupidity of Ruggero Santilli” to his website (doc. 30, ex. A). He attached a link to a You Tube video by Thunder Energies titled “Thunder Energies Discovers Invisible Entities” that touts the Santilli telescope's ability to detect antimatter galaxies, antimatter asteroids, and antimatter cosmic rays. Van Erp attempts to debunk Santilli's findings:

This claim by Santilli might be the easiest to debunk of all the extraordinary claims he has made (like the existence of magnecules and his alternative explanation for why the sun colors red when it sets). The whole concept of antimatter-light is bullshit, because the anti-particle of a photon is simply a photon. So if you want to speak of antimatter-light it's no different than ‘normal' light. ‘Anti-matter light' will therefore not focus with a concave lens. I will not bother trying to give explanations for the grainy images he took with his Santilli-‘out-of-focus'-telescope which he claims show Invisible Terrestrial Entities.

(doc. 30, ex. A at 1-2). Van Erp's criticisms continue: “Santilli writes that he has an article on this discovery of Invisible Terrestrial Entities in press with the American Journal of Modern Physics. That's just one of those fake journals, which will probably print anything if you are willing to pay their fees.” (Id. at 2). What follows is a string of comments by readers, who look to be scientists, amateur physicists, and followers of the paranormal. Most of these comments are critical of Santilli and his research; those that defend it are posted by a “Frank Stone, ” who Van Erp posits is actually Santilli. (Id. at 6). Some of the comments are benign - “Joaquim” writes, “I'm not really a young person and I've been building optics and telescopes since my youth, as a hobby. When I saw the telescope and that confirmation article, I thought something weird was going on, maybe I was going crazy or the laws of the universe changed while I wasn't looking. I just wanted to thank Mr. Pepijn for restoring my mental sanity.” (Id. at 4). And some comments are just plain mean - “Christian Corda” writes, “ ‘ Mr. Stone, ' you are Santilli because you have not the balls to use your real name. It is better having my job rather than being a poor old and crackpot man obsessed by false conspiracies like you.” (Id.). Mostly the comments are a pseudo slug-fest between Van Erp in one corner and Frank Stone in the other.

         In August 2016, Van Erp posted “More Santilli Shenanigans” to his blog (doc. 30, ex. C). This article summarizes Santilli's reaction to Van Erp's earlier articles, “The Continuing Stupidity of Ruggero Santilli” and “Finding JV Kadeisvili - or Mailing with Ruggero M Santilli.”[2] Apparently, Santilli had sent Van Erp a cease and desist letter through his counsel, which Van Erp blogged about. What most offends Santilli from “More Santilli Shenanigans” - the language he asks the Court to order Van Erp to remove - is Van Erp's accusation that Santilli fabricated an award and bestowed it upon himself:

To most people it will be clear that this award was instigated by mr. S himself and that he just asked his co-worker Georgiev to organize the signatures. There is a clue that this piece of paper was doctored at the offices of mr. S: the filename of the picture is ‘TARPON2.jpg', which points to the address of his business (1444 Rainville Road, Tarpon Springs, Florida). Im sure that these are just two more events we can add to the long list of fringe activities on Santilli's curriculum vitae.

(doc. 30, ex. C at 4).[3]

         “The Continuing Stupidity of Ruggero Santilli” appears second in a Google search of Santilli (see doc. 64, ex. C). Plaintiffs allege that Van Erp's blog has scared off potential investors in Thunder Energies, and they attach two affidavits to their motion from consultants saying just that (Id.).

         B. Analysis

         A party seeking a preliminary injunction must establish four elements: (1) substantial likelihood of success on the merits; (2) that it would be irreparably harmed if injunctive relief were denied; (3) that the threatened injury to them outweighs whatever damage the injunction may cause to the party to be enjoined; and (4) that the injunction, if issued, would not be adverse to the public interest. Davidoff & CIE, S.A. v. PLD Int'l Corp., 262 F.3d 1297, 1300 (11th Cir. 2001). “A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy that should not be granted unless the movant clearly carries [the] burden of persuasion on each of [the four] prerequisites.” Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin Co., 252 F.3d 1165, 1166 (11th Cir. 2001).

         1. Availability of Injunctive Relief

         Before diving into the analysis of whether a preliminary injunction is appropriate, I must consider whether injunctive relief is even available to Plaintiffs under these circumstances.[4] Under Florida law, there is a “well-settled rule prohibiting injunctive relief in defamation cases.” Baker v. Joseph, 938 F.Supp.2d 1265, 1270 (S.D. Fla. 2013); see Chevaldina v. R.K./FL Mgmt., Inc., 133 So.3d 1086, 1090 (Fla. 3d DCA 2014) (finding injunctive relief unavailable to prohibit defamatory or libelous statements); Dolen v. Ryals, No. 8:09-cv-2120-T-23AEP, 2010 WL ...

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