Friday, July 26, 2013

Jenny McCarthy, Censorship and Free Speech

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.

12 comments:

  1. Oh, how I wish Twitter had room for all this to actually be posted in a response, as the people shouting "free speech!" wouldn't actually take the time to click the link and read. Getting what you so eloquently put here is into 140 characters is tough.

    People have a hard time grasping that yes, while Ms. McCarthy has every right to spout whatever nonsense she wants, ABC is in no way obligated to give her a job. I've seen the words "blacklisted" floating around with complaints that you can't keep someone from working based on their opinions. Actually, you can. I'm an Infection Preventionist (imagine how much this potential situation scares me) at an NCCN-designated cancer insitute. If I started spouting off on fraudulent medical hypotheses, or advising and promoting potentially dangerous treatments that aren't standard of care, yes, they would be well within their rights to fire me for not towing the company line (which, I might add, is fully backed up by evidence). Someone wanted to start a "natural medicine" support group at our facility, and it was stopped before it got to the recruiting stage, and it was legal for that to happen. While Jenny has every right to say what she wants (well, not even that, but you know what I mean), ABC does not have to give her a microphone. And we have every right to demand they don't. Companies do not have to hire her if they don't like her beliefs, just as they have every right to if they do like her dangerous, fraudulent, fear-mongering quackery. And they have. Just as Toronto Public Health has every right to public condemn The View. In fact, as a health agency, I would venture to say it's their obligation to do so in the interest of public health. ABC is going to be responsible for any misinformation out that, and I really hope they are taking all the comments and backlash to heart, especially with the recent discussions and warnings about measles outbreaks and cases all over the US.

    On a note to lift everyone's spirits, a quick google news search of Jenny McCarthy brings up a legitmate looking article titled something along the lines of "Parents speak out on Behalf of Jenny McCarthy" and another mentioning witch-hunting or something (the title was too long to bother reading after I noticed the handle on the article). The first is a post on AoA, by AoA, and those parents' comments are from AoA. Their petition has a mere 1/10 of the number of signatures on the remove-Jenny petition. In order to generate good press for this move, they are manufacturing it. They have to, because there is nothing good from anywhere else. Even the articles falsely stating she deserves free speech acknowledge she's a nut-job who desperately grasps at pseudoscience.

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  2. I clicked and read. Unfortunately mine was not a mind that needed changing. All I can add is an empty request to Jenny McCarthy. Miss McCarthy, please stop trying to convince parents to allow their children the opportunity to kill my granddaughter.

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  3. @Indianadelae

    Yeah, Twitter is not the best tool for getting across nuanced messages. And you make a good point about speech in the context of a workplace. Like I said, McCarthy has every right to say whatever she wants, but The View is not the proper venue.

    @Patrick T. Kelly

    Thanks for reading. Pass the post along, and hopefully it will reach some who are on the fence about the issue.

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  4. "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."

    I find the argument presented in this article as extremely weak. The above two sentences seem to be the summary. McCarthy is free to hold and communicated her (wacky) beliefs (about vaccines) to a few people (others) but not a lot of people (a really big platform like national TV).

    Sorry, that just doesn't make sense. It's like telling me it's okay for me to claim a fire in the theater to the people beside me but not up front to the whole theater.

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  5. tl;dr: You can say anything you want, but I don't have to help you do it.

    @PantsOnFire

    I think you may have missed the part where the author said this (direct quote):

    "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."

    You have the right to stand on a soapbox in the town square and say whatever you want. But if you have no soapbox, and you see me walking by with one, you cannot compel me to give it to you if I don't want to, and I can have whatever reason for not wanting to, even no reason at all.

    I am not censoring you when I do that. There is nothing requiring or compelling me to help you.

    The television audience, in this case, is represented by the soapbox.  Just like I don't have to give you my soapbox, they're not required to give her access to that television audience.

    You may also be unclear on the business model that private, for-profit television networks use. The network sells time to advertisers and uses the proceeds to create more content (and profits). If lots of people watch the show, then the network can charge more for ad time because there are more people seeing the commercial, which in theory will get them to buy the products and/or services they're advertising. Conversely, if nobody watches the show, then they can't sell ad time, and the show gets cancelled.

    Now, the twist is this: People are free to not watch a show, and tell the network why they're not watching.  People are not only not required to purchase the products advertised, they're also free to tell the advertisers why.  They're also free to ask their friends to not buy X Brand Widgets, and also tell X Brand that they're not buying their product and specify a reason why.  At some point X Brand figures out that advertising on that show is not only less effective (fewer people see their ads) but may actually COST them business.  The smart business decision is to stop buying ad time on the show.  If that happens to enough advertisers, the show stops being profitable, and the network cancels it.

    Not censorship, not a civil rights violation, just a business decision.  In this case, the market really IS self-correcting.

    Another thing to think about, if you think she's being treated unfairly:  Replace Jenny talking about anti-vax stuff with a white supremacist.  Either that show would be gone quickly, or the white supremacist would be gone.

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  6. @PantsOnFire

    "It's like telling me it's okay for me to claim a fire in the theater to the people beside me but not up front to the whole theater."

    No, it isn't. That characterization completely misinterprets the point I'm making. In your example, I'd say you aren't allowed to do either. Both would be illegal if there really was no fire.

    Again, I'm not talking about legal limitations on McCarthy's speech. Zach summed up my argument rather nicely, so I won't reiterate it. If you still don't get it, go back and read my post again until you understand what I'm saying. Beyond that, I'm not sure how I can clear up your misunderstanding.

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    1. @Todd W.

      I will concede that my analogy was incorrect.

      This is the one sentence that is unclear: "She is not, however, entitled to a platform on which to spread those ideas."

      As Zach above pointed out, she is indeed "entitled" to pull up a soapbox on a street corner as a platform and spread her ideas. She is certainly not entitled to appear on The View so releasing her would not be any sort of rights violation (disregarding any contract issues which are not germane to this discussion).

      The rest of your argument is your opinion which is fine. However, I should also point out that you should be careful with this argument: "...and at the same time, you are choosing to increase that same risk for everyone else around you (or your child)."

      That is a very slippery slope. Virtually everything we do affects risks to other people from not washing your hands to lighting up your backyard BBQ. And while you may not agree, you yourself are alluding to speech against vaccines as being similar to shouting "fire" in a theater by using that line of argument.

      BTW, just so you know I am with you on the core argument for vaccinations. However, I am very sensitive to rights much like Twain's quote of not liking what somebody says but defending to the death their right to say it (within of course the "fire" safety and hate speech limits).

      I hope that clears up the misunderstanding you may have had about my comment.

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    2. @PantsOnFire

      I suppose I could have been clearer and said, "She is not entitled to whichever platform she wants from which to spread those ideas," much like Zach's example of getting a soapbox from a passerby.

      As to the "you are choosing to increase the risk for those around you" bit, I realize that the same argument could be made for just about everything. However, I think that in the case of vaccines, it is perfectly fair and reasonable to point it out, because this is exactly what happens when there are outbreaks, such as recent outbreaks of measles.

      I, likewise, am quite sensitive to speech rights, as I mentioned a few times in my post. Like I said, McCarthy has a right "to state her opinions and views", and I support her right to do so, but I do not support those who would give her a spot from which to spread those views.

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    3. As far as the "danger to people around you" argument goes, think of this: Say you're driving down the highway. You have a choice; Drive like there are other people on the road, or drive like a self-centered asshead. You can argue that you can drive however you want (legalities aside) as you're not endangering anyone but yourself, but you'd be wrong. Mandatory vaccinations are kind of like the rules of the road; they exist to protect everyone, not just your kid. Google "herd immunity" if you want more information.

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    4. "McCarthy has a right "to state her opinions and views", and I support her right to do so, but I do not support those who would give her a spot from which to spread those views."

      This is much more well-stated. You have the right to complain, write a blog post, go on social media, go on other TV or radio programs and state your opinion. You have the right to boycott the View, the network, turn off your TV, tell others not to watch the View, etc. I think we all agree with that.

      However, once the View hires her and puts her on the air and allows her to speak, she is indeed "entitled" to that platform. The View has given her that. You cannot say she is not entitled to it. You can only do and say what I outlined the preceding paragraph.

      Regarding risk to those around you, such risk is a relative one and is weighed on different subjective and objective factors. As well, people's tolerance for risk differ so it is very much an open discussion. This is unlike entitled and not entitled to something which is fairly black and white.

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    5. Just to be clear one more time, I am on your side of this issue. I actually never watch the View and McCarthy is just one more in a long list of issues I have with the show.

      So you may be wondering my motive since I am actually on your side. I often take my own side to task in many different issues. The reason I do is that your (my) argument is much more effective if it is what I call "bulletproof". As you can see from my critique, I can overlook a lot of the content of your opinion and argument and focus on some weak points.

      If you don't think you need the help, I'll gladly sign off and wish you well.

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  7. @Todd W

    I just discovered your blog and will be delving into a lot more of it in coming days. Thanks for this and keep up the good work.

    On this thread, I did post a piece about Jenny McCarthy on my own blog last week and would invite you and your readers to see it:

    http://musings.michaelwosnick.com/jenny-mccarthy-and-the-view-if-it-quacks-like-a-duck/

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