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California passes bill to punish doctors who dissent from government-approved COVID-19 narrative

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The California legislature has passed a bill that would punish doctors and other medical professionals for spreading purportedly false information about COVID-19 vaccinations and treatments.

If signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), AB 2098 would make health care professionals accused of spreading misinformation or disinformation about COVID-19 liable to disciplinary action from the Medical Board of California for "unprofessional conduct." That could include suspending or revoking a doctor's license to practice medicine in the state, according to the New York Times.

Democrats supporting the measure argue that the bill would address harms inflicted by the spread of misinformation, which the American Medical Association and other medical groups have claimed contributed to thousands of unnecessary hospitalizations and deaths.

"Due to their specialized knowledge and training, licensed physicians possess a high degree of public trust and therefore must be held to account," state Assemblyman Evan Low (D) said in a statement announcing the bill in February.

"The spreading of misinformation, of inaccurate COVID-19 information, contradicts that responsibility and threatens to further erode the public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk," Low said.

The bill targets direct conversations between doctors and their patients. It does not address comments made online or on television. It also would not require the suspension or revocation of a doctor's license, but it gives that option to the medical board, which already holds licensing powers over doctors and may take disciplinary action against those accused of other sorts of "unprofessional conduct."

Lawmakers defined disinformation as falsehoods "deliberately disseminated with malicious intent or an intent to mislead." But the most controversial part of the bill, according to its critics, defines misinformation as spreading information "that is contradicted by contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care."

Opponents of the bill say the "standard of care" language is hopelessly vague and anti-scientific, warning it could mean whatever the government says it means. They have also raised concerns that stifling minority or dissenting opinions in health care could hinder the progress of medicine.

A group called Physicians for Informed Consent labeled AB 2098 as the "worst bill of the 2022 legislative session" and accused lawmakers of attempting to censor California physicians and surgeons who oppose COVID-19 vaccine mandates and have promoted alternative or off-label treatments for the coronavirus.

"Without California doctors being free to speak their mind and educate the public, regarding COVID-19 or vaccination or any other controversial topic, no other public health laws will matter as legislators will not be able to obtain knowledge from a breadth of physician and surgeon opinions, and the public will not be able to obtain their doctors’ honest opinion — because doctors who think and act differently from the contemporary 'applicable standard of care' will fear losing their medical license," the group wrote to lawmakers in March.

Physicians for Informed Consent filed a lawsuit earlier this month seeking an injunction against the Medical Board of California on First Amendment grounds. The group argues the board has "weaponized" the phrase "misinformation" to target "scientific dissent."

If AB 2098 becomes law, it will almost certainly face legal challenges on similar grounds.

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