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Australia is not welcoming of anti-vaccine speakers: The implications for Freedom of Speech

As the world is shocked over the attacks against “Charlie Hebdo,” a satirical magazine in Paris, we got some news from Australia that some venues there will not welcome anti-vaccine speakers. Both situations have an effect on Freedom of Speech, and both situations can have tragic consequences. I’m not trying to equate the hateful actions of terrorists in France with the lies and misinformation of antivaxxers, not for a second. In France, a group of people were killed because of the Speech they practiced. Sociopaths responded to their speech with violence.

In Australia, antivaxxers are trying to practice Speech that is at the very least unacceptable and at the very worst dangerous, but they’re not being responded to with bullets. They’re being responded to with facts and reason, for the most part. However, a group of people are trying to prevent a rabid antivaxxer from entering the country to speak, and that makes me uncomfortable.

I’m not going to lie to you. I’m happy that the anti-vaccine lies and misinformation are not going to be spread around in Australia. One of the main organizers of those anti-vaccine talks is Stephanie Messenger, the author of an anti-vaccine children’s book rife with misinformation about the deadly disease that is measles. Predictably, Stephanie Messenger is incensed:

“An organiser of the tour, Stephanie Messenger, said those opposing the series of talks were trying to hide things from the public. “They say they want parents to make an informed choice, but you can’t do that if you don’t have all the information. So they are trying to suppress the information,” she said.”

She also had this to say when asked about the government denying a visa to an American anti-vaccine proponent:

“Ms Messenger said cancelling the visa would set a worrying precedent. “It would set the precedent that they can just cancel visas for anyone who hasn’t done anything wrong,” she said. “All of Dr Tenpenny’s information is referenced by medical and scientific papers … so I don’t know what they’re trying to stop the people from seeing.”

She’s speaking of Sherry Tenpenny, a physician who minimizes the consequences of vaccine-preventable diseases while maximizing the effects of vaccines. Here’s her level of knowledge about disease and immunizations:

The take-home message from that is that she — by her own admission — is not a scientific researcher. You can read more about Sherry Tenpenny in this dossier, of sorts, put together by Reasonable Hank.

Personally, I have no problem with Sherry Tenpenny and anyone who thinks like she does not being able to secure a venue on which to spread their anti-vaccine lies and misinformation. They have enough of a venue in their online blogs, websites, YouTube channels, and in self-publishing their books. They are not being silenced in any way when you look at the sheer amount of “speech” they put out there.

Where I get kind of worried is when governments get involved. This is because all speech — good or bad, and even lies — needs to be protected if we are to have a society in which we can have honest and open discussions about all subjects, including subjects that make us uncomfortable. Is some of that speech dangerous? Absolutely. Anti-vaccine speech that convinces parents not to vaccinate can be deadly. But it needs to be countered with the truth, not with silence.

While I don’t like to take examples to the extreme, I do wonder what would happen if a government all of a sudden decided that science like climate change or evolution is not to be discussed and did not allow scientists the freedom to travel to discuss such things. It would not be good. So I support the skeptics in Australia who are making it hard to Stephanie Messenger and Sherry Tenpenny to spread anti-vaccine misinformation. I can’t bring myself to support a government ban on travel — and, by extension, speech — of people whose ideas are unpalatable.

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

8 replies

  1. It’s their country, it’s their rules for who can come to it. Just as we have denied people that our government disagreed with in the past.
    In this particular case, the Australian government is working hard to suppress the spread of woo and antivaccinationist propaganda and antivaccinationist malpractice. NSW has been having a tough time with chiropractors and antivaccinationism within those practices (not to mention the woo of vitalism).
    Also remember, their freedom of speech and press is applied under a different common law and Constitution than ours is. Australia also has laws in place regarding internet filtering, prohibiting certain sites from being viewed from within Australia, pornography being one of the subjects that is filtered.

    We also have limitations on our free speech. We may not divulge national secrets, if we’ve acquired such. We may not make speech regarding the planning of the overthrow of our government, that is the felony of sedition. One may not make speech in the ordering and/or directing the overthrow of our government, that is the felony of treason (as well as actively working against our government, threatening the use of force or actually doing so (a certain ranch in Nevada has one guilty of treason, as did the “militias” that aimed firearms at federal agents). One may not make speech designed to cause imminent lawless action, that is inciting a riot. One may not make speech that plans the commission of a felony, that is conspiracy. Certain “arts” are prohibited, in particular, certain pornographic works, such as bestiality, pedophilia related films, rape films and a few others I can’t recall off of the top of my head. There are a few odds and ends that would result in breaking of the peace charges.
    So, we have quite a few limitations upon our speech. Fortunately, they’re not things normal people would run afoul of. Actually, you have to go pretty far out of your way to run afoul of our restrictions on free speech.


    1. While I agree with you that there are some limitations to speech that must exist to maintain peace and order and all that good stuff, I must respectfully disagree with the “it’s their country, their rules” notion and the notion that anti-vaccine speech is dangerous at a level comparable to the examples you give. It was hard for me to write this blog post because I think that I would probably do the same thing if I had absolute power. I would silence them all, get them off the internet, and ban their books and other propaganda. But I don’t have absolute power, and that kind of thinking is dangerous because there will come the time when honest scientific discourse may face the same kind of restrictions. Just look at how we deal with evolution. If we had a Tea Party-like administration in power, would it be Kosher for them to not allow scientists to come and discuss climate change or evolution or guns as a public health problem? The tables would be flipped, and I’d be steaming mad.

      Sadly, Tenpenny has the human right to express her ideas in any way she wants. Sure, the private venues hosting her talks also have every right not to give her the time of day. That, to me, is perfectly fine. It’s also fine if she stands on a corner and vents while pro-vaccine folks shout her down or ridicule her. She doesn’t have the human right to have her feelings protected or her ideas not to be challenged. Again, it’s when governments get involved that I get all sorts of troubled. Call it a “vestige” from watching my grandfather having to hide pamphlets in his house because they were from the opposing political party to the one that ruled Mexico with an iron fist for 71 years. Or from attending secret meetings there with my dad as they planned a mining workers strike at the risk of being hauled off to jail or — if they did strike — being dragged at gun point back to the mines. (Uranium was big business for Mexico in the 1980s, I guess.)


      1. Uranium was big business back then, guess what nation supported that national stance and purchased that uranium?
        If you said the United States, you were right.

        Each nation has their own laws, some more restrictive of speech than others. If we want to apply our standard and customary laws upon other nations, should they apply theirs to us?
        At this point, Australia is struggling with a significant public health menace, antivaccinationist chiropractors, antivaccinationist organizations (one recently forced to change its name, due to it being misleading) and a worrisome number of unvaccinated citizens, courtesy of both influences. Australian freedom of speech laws are mirrored by UK freedom of speech laws, which are more restrictive than our are.

        As for global warming meetings, well, the tea party now has a majority in both houses of Congress. Say goodbye to any funding of anyone who suggests investigating and measuring global warming. It was done before, with NASA losing more funding than paid for one observation program as a punitive measure. They don’t need to block a visa or two, they simply gut the funding of any agency that speaks on the subject, including universities that have programs that so much as discuss global warming.


        1. It’s not just climate change. Several professors I know have been put on notice that their grants have a good chance of not being renewed.
          I think I am projecting “American Exceptionalism” a bit.


          1. American Exceptionalism has been shown by history to largely be the exceptionalism of riding in the short school bus.
            For the greatest period of our exceptionalism has also coincided with our imperialism, where sea to shining sea turned into possessing Cuba and the Philippines (and more), with the results we had to muddle through throughout the latter part of the 20th century.
            Other points of exceptionalism had downsides as well. Each root notion proves false, such as egalitarianism, which is actually a rarity. Laissez-faire capitalism, which caused dozens of economic collapses, several depressions (actually more, if you use the non-retconned version of depression) and rampant accumulation of wealth by a very few, with the majority of the populace ranging from impoverished to being at risk of being impoverished with one financial disaster. Imperialism was part of our exceptionalism, bringing with it our eagerness for war, indeed, a worship of war and the warrior (while ignoring said warrior when he or she returns home injured). Our “democracy”, which routinely gets gerrymandered to support the party in majority at each election.
            I won’t go on about the grand mess the USSR and US have created throughout the world. That would take an entire book. I’ll simply suggest looking at a few of our “friends” of political expediency, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iran (well, until they kicked out the Shah again, after we overthrew a democratic government to install him. All at the behest of the predecessor of BP).
            For the latter, do Google “Operation Ajax”. The Wikipedia article is quite close to the classified version, with the latter only adding a few more names to the operation.


  2. Epi Ren interesting blog but are you committing a slippery slope logical fallacy? Is Tenpenny the equivalent is shouting fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire? She is spreading false information and that kind of false information gets people killed.


    1. Sorry, Rob. I was busy fighting cancer scammers online all morning. Now, back to your question. If you don’t mind me using the Socratic method, I will respond to your question with another question.

      Do you want your patients who are parents to never hear from the anti-vax side, or do you want them to be informed and equipped to respond to the anti-vax side? It’s one thing to say that people like Tenpenny — who, yes, put the public health at risk — should never be listened to by anyone anywhere, and another to say, “There’s this woman named Tenpenny. This is what she has to say about vaccines. It’s 99% lies and 1% misinformation. Let me tell you why…”

      After all, we’re all adults. We can have rational discussions, can we not? (Don’t answer that.)


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