State's COVID misinformation law entangled in conflict
Gov. Gavin Newsom may have been prescient when he acknowledged free speech concerns as he signed California's COVID misinformation bill last fall. In a message to lawmakers, the governor warned of “the chilling effect other potential laws may have” on the ability of doctors to speak frankly with patients but expressed confidence that the one he was signing did not cross that line.
Yet the law — meant to discipline doctors who give patients false information about COVID-19 — is now in legal limbo after two federal judges issued conflicting rulings in recent lawsuits that say it violates free speech and is too vague for doctors to know what it bars them from telling patients.
In two of the lawsuits, Senior U.S. District Judge William Shubb in Sacramento issued a temporary halt on enforcing the law, but it applies only to the plaintiffs in those cases. Shubb said the law was “unconstitutionally vague,” in part because it “fails to provide a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice of what is prohibited.” His ruling last month clashed with one handed down in Santa Ana in December; in that case, U.S. District Judge Fred Slaughter refused to halt the law and said it was “likely to promote the health and safety of California COVID-19 patients.”
The legal fight in the nation's most populous state is to some extent a perpetuation of the pandemic-era tussle pitting supporters of public health guidelines against groups and individuals who resisted masking orders, school shutdowns, and vaccine mandates.
California's COVID misinformation law, which took effect Jan. 1, is being challenged by vaccine skeptics and civil liberties groups. Among those suing to get the law declared unconstitutional is a group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has questioned the science and safety of vaccines for years.
But doubts about the law are not confined to those who have battled the scientific mainstream.
Dr. Leana Wen, a health policy professor at George Washington University who previously served as president of Planned Parenthood and as Baltimore's health commissioner, wrote in an op-ed a few weeks before Newsom signed the law that it would exert “a chilling effect on medical practice, with widespread repercussions that could paradoxically worsen patient care.”
The Northern California affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union has weighed in against the law on free speech grounds, though the national organization has affirmed the constitutionality of COVID vaccine mandates.
“If doctors are scared of losing their licenses for giving advice that they think is helpful and appropriate, but they don't quite know what the law means, they will be less likely to speak openly and frankly with their patients,” said Hannah Kieschnick, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.
The law establishes that doctors who give false information about COVID to patients are engaging in unprofessional conduct, which could subject them to discipline by the Medical Board of California.
Doubts about the law are not confined to those who have battled the scientific mainstream.