MANDEL: Retired ‘quackbuster’ fights defamation lawsuit over COVID-19 tweets

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When not caring for patients, Dr. Terry Polevoy has spent much of his life crusading against medical misinformation, quackery and anti-vaxxers.

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And for his good fight, the 76-year-old retired pediatrician now finds himself swept into a $6.8 million libel suit filed against him and 22 others by a Brampton doctor angry they’ve criticized her controversial COVID-19 claims on Twitter.

Claims — against vaccines and lockdowns — that have already earned Dr. Kulvinder Gill cautions from the College of Physicians and Surgeons for posts that were “irresponsible” and a “possible risk to public health.”

Lawyers for Polevoy and the other defendants, including physicians, academics and journalists, will be in court next week seeking to have the lawsuit tossed under an Ontario law aimed at protecting people from strategic lawsuits against public participation, the so-called anti-SLAPP legislation.

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“There is a real risk that the effects of this proceeding will stifle the speech of the defendants, and deter other physicians, journalists, scientists, and other members of the public from engaging in public discussion and discourse about potential misinformation on matters of public health in the future,” Polevoy argues in a document filed with the motion.

Unlike most of the others being sued by Gill, the retiree doesn’t have any insurance to dip into that will cover the hefty legal costs that may lie ahead.

“It’s already cost me $55,000,” the Waterloo senior laments. “It’s ruining my life.”

Dr. Kulvinder Gill is seen here in a medical office in Brampton on Monday, July 3, 2017.
Dr. Kulvinder Gill is seen here in a medical office in Brampton on Monday, July 3, 2017. Photo by Ernest Doroszuk /Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

Gill filed her multi-million dollar suit last December, claiming the barrage of criticism on social media against her comments was malicious and orchestrated.

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“The individual defendants, like a pack of hyenas, attempted and in fact coordinated a circling of the plaintiff to literally destroy her career and reputation,” Gill argues in her statement of claim.

Falsely labelling her an “anti-vaxxer,” “anti-science” and a “conspiracy theorist”, she said, was untrue and had “sexist, misogynist, and racially overt overtures.”

She’s being represented by lawyer Rocco Galati, a vocal critic of government COVID-19 health measures and founder of the Constitutional Rights Law Centre.

The defendants have denied her claims and argue their remarks were “fair comment.”

The firestorm began in the summer of 2020 when Gill, also a pediatrician, took to Twitter and argued Canadians should rely on an unproven malaria drug to combat COVID-19 rather than lockdowns and vaccines.

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“If you have not yet figured out that we don’t need a vaccine, you are not paying attention,” Gill tweeted on Aug. 4, 2020, adding the hashtag #FactsNotFear.

On the same day, she posted: “There is absolutely no medical or scientific reason for this prolonged, harmful, and illogical lockdown.”

Two days later, she stated: “#Humanity’s existing effective defences against #COVID19 to safely return to normal life now includes: -Truth, -T-cell Immunity, -Hydroxychloroquine.”

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The reaction against her claims on Twitter was swift — as were complaints to the medical regulator.

In March, Gill was told she must appear before the college’s discipline committee to be cautioned in person “with respect to lack of professionalism and failure to exercise caution in her posts on social media, which is irresponsible behaviour for a member of the profession and presents a possible risk to public health.”

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The committee worried some would see her vaccine tweet as dangerous guidance against getting inoculated in the middle of a pandemic.

“In the current circumstances, a safe, tested vaccine is the ideal solution to protecting the population and bringing about the end of the pandemic with the lowest possible number of deaths,” they said.

As for her anti-lockdown comment that there was no medical or scientific reason for the lockdown, the committee found “it is not accurate.”

Gill says her tweets were taken out of context and is taking the college’s decision to Ontario’s Divisional Court.

Polevoy feels duty bound to call out what he sees as serious misinformation when he sees it.

“I’ve been a quackbuster since 1997,” he says proudly.

This time, the stakes are higher.

Polevoy is hoping Gill’s lawsuit is thrown out — but if it isn’t?

“I’ll be in a horrible position,” he sighed.

While others have deep pockets, the retiree said, “mine are threadbare.”

mmandel@postmedia.com

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