From the Archives

Phillip Johnson on Trial

The Attempt to Censor the Ellison/Duesberg Book

(Rethinking AIDS, Dec. 1994)

The road to publication for the book by Bryan Ellison and Peter Duesberg had never been an easy one. Two major publishers in a row, Addison-Wesley and St. Martin’s Press, had paid for the manuscript, then suddenly rejected it as too controversial. Nearly twenty others nervously refused to deal with the book at all. Unwilling to let it die, Ellison had finally taken the initiative and arranged the book’s release with a smaller publisher. Now, after seven years of academic debate over the HIV hypothesis of AIDS, the process of opening this controversy to the public could begin.

Not everyone had the same idea. At 11:05 pm Monday evening, August 1, a lawyer’s letter came in on Ellison’s fax machine. “You must immediately cease and desist publishing, marketing, promoting, distributing, selling, and otherwise disposing of the [book],” barked the threatening letter — lest an injunction be sought to suppress the book forcibly.1 Most astonishingly of all, the lawyer was representing Peter Duesberg!

Duesberg and his lawyer continued the threats for several weeks, demanding that Ellison permanently sign away his rights to protect the book’s content and business affairs — in exchange for nothing. “If you do not want to do this, the book will be lost,” warned Duesberg,2 while his lawyer boasted that “You [Ellison] and Peter [Duesberg] may achieve mutual assured destruction of the book, meaning that neither of you will be able to publish any version of the book anywhere.”3 To underline the point, Duesberg convinced the University department to cut off retroactively Ellison’s monthly stipend (as a graduate student), followed by dismissing Ellison from the program altogether — just as Ellison was on the verge of earning his PhD degree after five years of study.

Meanwhile, Charles Thomas, one of the founders of the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis, illegally filed a change-of-address form for the Rethinking AIDS newsletter in an attempt to steal the return mail and prevent distribution of the book (the penalty for this federal felony crime can include heavy fines and a prison sentence). Certain other members began a letter-writing campaign to discourage book sales, and legal threats were soon directed against Rethinking AIDS.

What bizarre influence could have turned so many AIDS dissidents at each other’s throats, and against the long-awaited book by Ellison and Duesberg?

Oddly enough, one figure consistently found in the midst of this growing ruckus has somehow managed to remain unruffled and unaffected. His name is virtually unknown to most members of the Group, yet he has quietly exerted a growing influence on Duesberg and other leading dissidents. Several key HIV critics have come to depend heavily on this man’s advice, even though he has never actually declared his personal position on the HIV debate. His name? Phillip Johnson.

Who is Phillip Johnson?

A professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley — and a founding member of our dissident AIDS Group — Johnson epitomizes the ambiguous lawyer (‘on the one hand…, while on the other hand…’). But he has developed this skill to a refined art; without ever taking a position, he can convince others that he has asserted a viewpoint, or he can drop subtle suggestions upon which others soon act. Always projecting an air of objectivity and authority, Johnson maintains a certain aloofness while those around him follow his “advice” — and get into trouble.

AIDS is merely one of several controversial scientific or political issues in which Johnson has involved himself. Consistently, however, his efforts seem directed more to contain all such controversies as sterile debates within academic circles, rather than allowing the general public to discover these issues. The War on HIV, for example, will never be stopped by the NIH-funded scientific community, laced as it is with its conflicts of interest; only a stern reaction by the general public, which does not appreciate paying taxes to be fooled by “experts,” would end the power of the HIV dogma. Johnson, on the other hand, seems to have worked hard to prevent this HIV controversy from becoming a household issue.

What are Johnson’s views? What is his agenda? No one seems to be quite sure. Indeed, he is a man of astonishing contradictions, who will suggest one apparent viewpoint at one time, and then promptly do a turnabout at his next opportunity.

For instance, he is an integral member of the very establishment against which he portrays himself as an iconoclast. A graduate of Harvard and of the University of Chicago, Johnson has been awarded the Jefferson E. Peyser professorship in his law department. Unlike such prestigious but blacklisted figures as Peter Duesberg, Johnson is routinely able to write columns on such controversial topics as Darwinian evolution, AIDS, abortion, and church/state separation in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and even such scientific journals as the Journal of Molecular Evolution. Johnson’s textbook, Criminal Law: Cases, Materials, and Text appears to be used nationwide in law schools, and has been published since 1975 in at least four editions.

Johnson refers to himself as a “Christian” who challenges the notion of Darwinian evolution.4 As such, he is often categorized as an evangelical member of the Religious Right by Darwinists; indeed, various leaders on the Religious Right — including creationists — admire Johnson as a close ally, while Christian fundamentalists publish his book. On the other hand, he often refers to himself vaguely as a “philosophical theist,” refuses to state a clear personal position on the Darwinism issue, and attacks creationist spokesmen who make the controversy a public issue, while he tries to divert the debate into academic circles.5 Leading Darwinists even feel comfortable holding joint forums with Johnson, including a new computer bulletin board service — a degree of cooperation that Duesberg has never achieved with his own opponents in the AIDS controversy. Johnson also makes much of his prior work as a law clerk for Earl Warren, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who led the legal drive to ban prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Yet Johnson has never claimed undergoing any conversion of political views from left to right.

In early 1991, Johnson moved from being an outside observer to taking a direct interest in the AIDS debate. He has since become a close but not widely recognized advisor to Duesberg and other leading AIDS dissidents, has participated in the founding of the Group, and has written articles on the subject in Rethinking AIDS and elsewhere. Despite this appearance of support, Johnson has never actually declared his personal position on the issue. Indeed, even after being shown the full evidence that HIV and AIDS do not correlate statistically, he continued publicly to state (without evidence) that “I am left with the impression that the correlation between HIV and AIDS is so strong that it is no wonder that so many researchers are convinced it indicates causation.”6 When the infamous attack on Duesberg by Ascher, Winkelstein, et al. appeared in Nature in March of 1993, in which Duesberg charged fabrication of data, Johnson ignored the importance of this charge and wrote to Duesberg that, even if the paper contained deliberately fabricated data, “what difference would it make if the disputed line in the chart were omitted?”7 As if a fraudulent paper could still be taken seriously.

Johnson seems to prefer confining the AIDS debate to an academic setting, where the entire question would slowly die as billions of extra dollars are spent each year in the War on HIV. Ignoring the inherent conflicts of interest for NIH-funded AIDS scientists, he has publicly pretended that “AIDS researchers are on the whole honest and dedicated, of course,” and have simply continued to make mistakes.8 “It seems to me that the key to Peter’s problem is to build support within the scientific community for his argument,” Johnson told Bryan Ellison — as if such support were even possible, given the $25 billion spent in the War on AIDS.9 “I see no reason why the disagreement over the role of HIV should prevent cooperation” with politically powerful AIDS moguls, wrote Johnson on another occasion.10 With advice like this, Duesberg and the rest of us would certainly be spinning our wheels for a long, long time — while the general public remains entirely in the dark, footing the bill. Johnson does not stand alone; David Baltimore, Anthony Fauci, and other generals in the War on AIDS have also repeatedly warned Duesberg not to bring this debate to public attention, but rather to keep it a private affair within scientific ranks.

Johnson’s own behavior is consistent with this apparent agenda. Although he has so gained the confidence of Duesberg and some other leading AIDS dissidents that they consider him a close ally and personal friend, other associates of Johnson have never even heard about the controversy. For example, leading Christians in the Religious Right, who also think of Johnson as a close ally, have expressed astonishment to us that he never told them of the HIV debate.

A stranger in our midst

If Johnson is trying to prevent the AIDS debate from breaking out into the public realm, he would naturally try to block publication of the Ellison and Duesberg book. Though Johnson has never declared such an intention, his bizarre pattern of behavior has certainly lent itself to disrupting the publication process at almost every turn.

After Addison-Wesley first tried to rewrite and soften the book, and finally refused to publish it in October of 1993, Ellison and Duesberg began searching for a new publisher. St. Martin’s Press made a modest offer for the already-completed manuscript, but refused at first to promise an editorial “hands-off” policy or to guarantee any publicity at all. At this point Johnson stepped in, contacting Regnery Gateway Publishers to arrange a second offer. Regnery offered nearly as much money as did St. Martin’s, plus a handsome package of guaranteed promotion for the book.

But as soon as Ellison began to consider the Regnery offer seriously, Johnson suddenly changed his mind. For no apparent reason, Johnson insisted strongly that the authors choose St. Martin’s after all. Regnery meanwhile warned the authors that St. Martin’s would probably reverse itself and refuse to publish the book later on, but Duesberg so trusted Johnson that he, too, insisted on the St. Martin’s deal. Ellison relented, and Regnery’s offer was rejected.

As predicted, in April 1994 the Chairman and CEO of St. Martin’s, Thomas McCormack, did change his mind. Out of the blue, he overrode his senior editor and demanded a second editorial process to soften the book.

At a time when Ellison and Duesberg needed to present a united front in the renewed negotiations with St. Martin’s, Johnson suddenly stepped in to communicate with McCormack. Claiming to be “a friend of Peter Duesberg and of Bryan Ellison,” Johnson wrote an unauthorized letter to St. Martin’s — attacking Ellison for holding his ground! Johnson told McCormack to “stand firm but don’t give up.… If Bryan refuses to see reason, he will be setting himself up for a disaster.”11 Naturally, the letter helped frighten Duesberg into caving in, and began driving a wedge between Duesberg and Ellison. The letter also seemed to provoke McCormack into making even stronger demands and recommending that Ellison and Duesberg pay back their advance money and take the book elsewhere. By May, St. Martin’s openly refused to work with the authors any longer, over Ellison’s protests.

Now that both the Regnery and St. Martin’s deals were dead, someone (Johnson?) convinced Duesberg that he needed to seize full and permanent control of the book from Ellison. In early June, Duesberg hired an attorney to demand that Ellison sign over control of the book, in exchange for nothing at all. How did Duesberg choose the attorney, or even think of such a course of action? In our personal experience with him, Duesberg rarely makes legal decisions without consulting Johnson.

To increase the pressure on Ellison, Duesberg had the biology department cut off his monthly stipend, followed by having Ellison dismissed from graduate school with no degree at all — despite five years of work, three scientific papers, and having written the entire book. We have recently discovered that the department did not carry out these actions until receiving a strong second opinion favoring the action — from Phillip Johnson!12 But when communicating with Ellison at that same time, Johnson carefully pretended to be neutral and interested only in helping Ellison.

Johnson had already been trying to win Ellison’s confidence for some time. In a failed attempt to seize control of the Rethinking AIDS newsletter, Johnson called up Ellison several weeks earlier. Claiming to speak on behalf of the Group, Johnson said that Ellison had been chosen to replace Jim Trabulse as editor, without Trabulse’s knowledge (although Trabulse is also the publisher). Alternating between flattery and stern authority, Johnson tried to talk Ellison into slowly and quietly pushing Trabulse aside. What if Trabulse doesn’t agree, protested Ellison? Don’t worry, said Johnson, we can take care of him. Ellison rejected the “offer.” Later, in trying to regain Ellison’s confidence after his stipend had been terminated, Johnson feigned ignorance of the situation and tried to bribe Ellison with $200. Again, Ellison refused.

By July, Ellison had finally decided to publish his book through a smaller publishing company. This took Johnson completely by surprise, causing him to drop his normally charming veneer. He fired off an angry and threatening letter to Trabulse, demanding an immediate stop to the book’s distribution through Rethinking AIDS. Despite his personal knowledge to the contrary, Johnson brazenly and falsely declared that “Ellison unilaterally refused to cooperate with the editors [at St. Martin’s] and effectively prevented publication.” Johnson also accused Ellison of being “unethical and unlawful” for arranging the book’s publication, and demanded that Trabulse hand over the Rethinking AIDS mailing list.13

To reinforce this demand, Charles Thomas, another founder of the Group, filed a false change of address for Rethinking AIDS, trying to divert book orders to himself. Thomas has also come to trust Johnson’s advice, and would certainly have thought twice about making such an illegal move without the reassurance of a law professor like Johnson.

Duesberg had by this time hired a second attorney to threaten Ellison with a lawsuit and an injunction against publishing the book, unless he would sign over control to Duesberg. When Ellison directly asked the attorney whether he knew Johnson personally, or had been recommended to Duesberg by Johnson, the attorney dodged the question. Would Duesberg have pursued such a reckless legal fight without Johnson’s support? Such would seem out of character for Duesberg.

Johnson has since posted a libelous statement on the Internet (the computer “information superhighway”). Though never elected by the hundreds of members of the Group, Johnson claimed to speak on our collective behalf. Despite having been notified of the facts by Ellison and others, Johnson brazenly lied about the collapse of the St. Martin’s Press deal, and angrily denounced the book.

As a legal expert, Johnson has been surprisingly eager to seize the reins of a book and newsletter that are not his — without any discernible motive. In the end, he has only succeeded in ending the long friendship between Duesberg and Ellison, at no cost to himself. Acting as a “friend” from within our ranks, Johnson has caused more damage to our movement than Robert Gallo himself.

Were it not for the current publication of the book, it might not have reached the public for several years. While this might suit Johnson’s apparent agenda, it would help block public knowledge of the suppressed HIV controversy, and could prevent the political backlash that would break the hold of the AIDS establishment.

Fortunately, the book is reaching more people every day. During the first four months of publication, the book has already won more supporters for the Duesberg view than the efforts of Duesberg, Ellison, and the Group combined over the past few years. This is exciting news for true AIDS dissidents.

But Phillip Johnson probably isn’t celebrating.


1. Brad Bunnin, Letter to Bryan Ellison, 7-31-94.

2. Peter Duesberg, Letter to Bryan Ellison, 8-19-94.

3. Brad Bunnin, Letter to Bryan Ellison, 8-18-94.

4. Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial, Regnery Gateway, Washington, DC, 1991, p. 14.

5. Ibid., p. 14.

6. Phillip E. Johnson, Letter to Various Persons, 6-11-92.

7. Phillip E. Johnson, Letter to Peter Duesberg, 4-21-93.

8. Phillip E. Johnson, “AIDS and the dog that didn’t bark,” Insight, 2-14-94, p. 26.

9. Phillip E. Johnson, Letter to Bryan Ellison, 3-19-91.

10. Phillip E. Johnson, Memo to various participants in the AIDS debate, 10-22-92.

11. Phillip E. Johnson, Letter to Thomas McCormack, 4-19-94.

12. Caroline M. Kane, Letter to Dean Joseph Cerny, 8-26-94.

13. Phillip E. Johnson, Letter to James Trabulse, 7-29-94.