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.
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.
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