Bad medical advice should not count as free speech

In what will surely be considered good news for COVID-19 deniers, horse- dewormer enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists, a groundbreaking lawsuit was filed in federal court earlier this month.

The plaintiffs say it’s in defense of free speech, but it’s really about science vs. baloney. And it seems those who filed the legal action know as much about the law as they do medicine and biology.

Former NBA star John Stockton joined forces with presidential candidate and vaccine opponent Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and a group of doctors to go after the Washington Attorney General and the Washington Medical Commission.

The complaint claims the Washington Medical Commission has unfairly targeted about 60 physicians who “speak out against the so-called ‘mainstream COVID narrative.’”

“There is no place for the government, under the guise of regulating physicians and protecting the public, to censure, restrict or sanction the content and viewpoint of the publicly expressed views of physicians on COVID or any other subject, just because the government does not like the message or thinks it is wrong,” the plaintiffs wrote.

A bit of background:

Since the nation’s first COVID outbreak in early 2020, two divergent responses emerged. One embraced public health research and touted masks and vaccines. The other downplayed the risks and focused on miracle cures. Former President Donald Trump was a proponent of the latter, hawking the magical properties of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug with no known impact on COVID.

And then came ivermectin, which is most commonly used to deworm horses and has limited benefits for humans.

No evidence has been found that the drug is effective in preventing or treating COVID.

Despite alerts and advice against ivermectin for COVID, a few Washington doctors persisted in prescribing the drug. That got the attention of the Washington Medical Commission, which monitors and enforces licenses of the state’s 34,000 physicians and physician assistants.

The Federation of State Medical Boards wrote in July 2021 that doctors have a powerful position in society. “Spreading inaccurate COVID-19 vaccine information contradicts that responsibility, threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk.”

In September 2021, this editorial board wrote: “For the sake of gullible but likely unvaccinated patients, the health care profession, and the community ready to put this disaster of human suffering and economic hardship behind us, the commission should come down hard on ivermectin. It’s time for this sideshow to end.”

Alas, the sideshow has not ended.

In its response, the state Attorney General’s Office did not mince words. Physicians under investigation cannot sue to block those investigations, wrote Andrew Hughes, Assistant Attorney General, on Tuesday in a letter to plaintiffs’ lawyers.

He added: “The claims you assert on behalf of John Stockton are even weaker. Mr. Stockton is not a state-licensed medical professional and cannot seriously contend that he is injured by the Commission’s exercise of its authority over medical licensing.”

If the lawsuit is not withdrawn by Thursday at noon, the AG’s office will seek to recoup its costs and attorneys’ fees.

Free speech is one thing. Bad medical advice is another. And that becomes everyone’s problem if we’re talking about an infectious disease that has the potential to take lives and shut down the economy.

The Washington Medical Commission must remain diligent. Those who seek to leverage their fame in one field (sports, family politics) to influence another (public health policy) ought to be greeted with the utmost skepticism.

Thanks to masks and vaccines, the pandemic is largely in the rearview mirror. Let’s keep it that way.

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