"He had developed a habit of teaching people, in easy to understand terms, concepts about infectious diseases, epidemiology and statistics," said Kiekenlever. "That upset people."
The complaints were lodged by members of the online community Age of Unreason, many of whom subscribe to the tabloid broadsheets published by the National Vaccine Misinformation Center. One of these letters was leaked to Harpocrates Speaks.
Sliepcevich is so mean! He keeps using logic and facts to show that I'm wrong. I can't even say he's lying because he has the gall to link to credible sources. That really hurts! Someone that mean should be fired. Or at least tarred and feathered.
Age of Unreason contributor Blake Woeisme asserts that Sliepcevich's statements are false because Sliepcevich's brother's friend's cousin's girlfriend's father works for Merck. "How could someone with conflicts of interest like that be trusted? His facts don't match what I believe, so he must be lying. Oh, and he makes me feel dumb."
Columbina Witte, MD, Sliepcevich's immediate supervisor thinks differently.
"He's very conscientious. He has a talent for taking complex concepts and saying them in a way that anyone can understand. Sliepcevich backs up his work with references to sound scientific sources. Anyone can verify the validity of what he says. His passion to do this on his own time is admirable."
"By telling people the truth, Sliepcevich makes these few, extremely vocal people unhappy," said Kiekenlever. "They hold these fringe ideas that he shoots down; it threatens their worldview. Look, everyone knows things like measles are bad, but they don't want to be told that. The IDIOT is supposed to help people feel good. If their feelings are hurt, then they don't feel good, and that's bad for their health."
When asked if Sliepcevich engaged in any of his online activities in his role within the department, Kiekenlever admitted that he did not. "But that's not the point," she protested. "Whether representing the team or on their own time, employees all need to speak with one voice. That means no one can talk about public health issues without vetting it with the IDIOT first. Technically, employees aren't barred from [talking about publich health issues] on their own time, but I'd probably fire anyone that didn't comply."
Trying to clarify the IDIOT director's statement, Dr. Witte asked if she would be allowed to discuss measles during a parent-teacher conference with her daughter's teacher. She was told, "No."
According to Kiekenlever, it should not make a big difference whether she abridged Sliepcevich's speech rights or not. "No one uses this - what do you call it - social media stuff, do they? Computers are always malfunctioning, anyway. Just the other day, I had to send an e-mail to the team letting them know that the e-mail servers were down. It's all such a bother."
Sliepcevich, himself, is quite disheartened by the whole episode. "I love what I do. There's a lot of misinformation out there, and I just want to do my part to fight that. I want to help people stay healthy. It's become so hard to do what I love."
In 2007, Sliepcevich started a personal blog to write about epidemiology and public health issues. He has also developed a strong presence on Twitter. Yet despite using his own time and resources for his online activities and clear disclaimers that his comments were his own and not those of his employers, Kiekenlever forced him to take it all down.
"Clearly, he's smart and a lot of people like what he does," confided Kiekenlever, "but these three complaints we've received - I mean, yeah, they're nuts, but they've threatened to sue, for God's sake! That's the real problem; he could screw up my political aspirations, and I just can't let him do that. Wouldn't you do the same thing?"