Most of you have probably heard by now that anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy has been picked to be a host on ABC's The View. Following the announcement, there was a media uproar lambasting the decision. Newspapers, magazines and blogs erupted with posts questioning the wisdom of giving her a platform with millions of viewers from which she could spew her vaccine-related misinformation and fear-mongering. Some took the angle that she should get a large platform so that more people can see just how ridiculous are her views on vaccinations. Toronto Public Health even went so far as to tweet, urging people to contact The View and ask them to get rid of her:
They aren't the only ones, either. Before the hiring was officially announced, Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy urged people to write to the producers, as did Just the Vax. There is even a Change.org petition to remove her from the show.
It isn't much of a surprise, then, that her supporters among the anti-vaccine community are all up in arms, crying "Censorship!" and lamenting about the infringement on McCarthy's First Amendment right to free speech. I didn't comment on this whole thing when the story first broke, because, well, everyone else had already said everything. But I would like to touch on that whole free speech issue a bit.
I've written occasionally about free speech, censorship and the like. It should be pretty clear from what I have said in the past that I am a strong proponent of free speech and generally condemn censorship, especially when the one censoring is being hypocritical. I have also been outspoken when others are silenced through legal threats, intimidation, etc. Heck, this blog started because Age of Autism banned me for merely disagreeing with them and pointing out errors in their arguments.
However, I also recognize that there are justifiable limits on speech. The classic example is shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. Commercial speech is not protected; advertisers have to actually tell the truth about their products. Purposely inciting people to violence is not protected speech, either.
So what are the actual topics involved in this whole brouhaha about Jenny McCarthy being on The View? We have to make a distinction between "censorship" on one hand and "First Amendment/Free Speech" on the other. Although related, these are rather separate and completely different issues. Let's start with the latter.
Let's start with the First Amendment. To be blunt, this is not a First Amendment issue, much as Jenny's supporters claim that it is. The First Amendment, remember, only applies to governments enacting laws that curtail your speech rights. It does not apply to individuals, organizations or companies voicing their opinions or exercising their rights to publish what they wish to publish. If anti-vaccinationists want to argue that Jenny McCarthy has a right to be on The View because of the First Amendment, then I have a right to comment on, say, Age of Autism, without being censored or having my comments flushed down the memory hole. But as I've explained before, Age of Autism has every right to censor as they see fit, and I have the right to point out their hypocrisy. The First Amendment does not apply in this situation at all, unless a the state or Federal government decides to weigh in on the issue.
What about censorship? Does calling for her to be dumped from The View constitute censorship? The short answer is, no, it doesn't. McCarthy is still free to state her opinions and views. She has that right, and I support her right to open her mouth and let idiocy tumble out. She does not, however, have the right to a platform, and the producers of The View are under no obligation to give it to her. Those who oppose the decision to hire her are not engaging in censorship. They are not actively silencing her or otherwise preventing her from spreading views that endanger public health. The only one, right now, that can censor her is the show and its producers, and the only way they could do it is to bleep out what she says on the show. But not even they can censor her in other venues.
I've come across a number of comments saying some variation of "You have no right to tell them to drop McCarthy". If ever there was an example of a lack of self-awareness, this is it. What happened to "free speech"? Essentially, those who make this statement are saying that Jenny McCarthy has a right to "free speech" but those who disagree with her do not. One shouldn't need to point out the hypocrisy involved.
At the end of the day, Jenny McCarthy is fully entitled to hold whatever wacky beliefs she wants, and she's free to tell her wacky ideas to others. She is not, however, entitled to a platform on which to spread those ideas. One critic of Toronto Public Health wondered in a Toronto Sun editorial if Toronto Public Health would equally call for the firing of Tom Cruise, due to his belief in the cult of Scientology and opposition to psychiatry, or any number of Hollywood types because they influence others to get plastic surgery? But this is a false equivalence. Although Cruise's beliefs are just as erroneous as McCarthy's, the problem is not simply the wackiness of the idea. It is not merely that they have "wrong-headed views about important medical issues". There is also the matter of scope.
All of these celebrities influencing medical decisions certainly affect the individual who listens to them, but only Jenny McCarthy (and certain other anti-vaccine celebrities) has the potential to damage public health to a much greater degree. Looking at the most likely outcomes in the examples from the Toronto Sun editorial linked above, those who choose to get plastic surgery (for non-medical reasons) affect only their own health. Likewise, those listening to Cruise's anti-psychiatry nonsense only affect their own health. But if a parent listens to Jenny McCarthy and avoids vaccinating their child, it affects the health of those around the child: family, friends and even the greater community. I've said it before: the choice not to vaccinate affects more than just the individual who does not get vaccinated. In essence, you are choosing to increase your (or your child's) risk of acquiring a preventable disease, and at the same time, you are choosing to increase that same risk for everyone else around you (or your child).
The bottom line is this: just as everyone, even Jenny McCarthy, has a right to state their own opinions and views, so, too, do people have a right to criticize those views and to question the wisdom of providing a platform for those views. By hiring Jenny McCarthy, The View is giving her an unearned legitimacy, particularly if they allow her to discuss vaccines from her opposition position. And if they do allow her to speak her anti-vaccine mind, then, as Orac says, she has the potential to do a lot of damage by scaring parents away from vaccines, not to mention spreading her beliefs in various quack treatments that can potentially harm kids. Want to know what could happen? Take a look at Wales or The Netherlands.
I encourage the producers of The View to have some integrity, adhere to reality, and get rid of Jenny McCarthy as a host. I won't force them (as if I could), but I do hope they'll do the right thing.