The latest D-list celebrity face of anti-vaccinationism is comedian Rob Schneider. He has not been shy, at all, about voicing his opinions on how bad he thinks vaccines are, whether on Twitter or in radio interviews. His public pronouncements on vaccines recently came back to bite him in the butt. And, once again, the tired old false arguments about free speech were trotted out and dusted off.
I first became aware of Rob Schneider as an anti-vaccine activist back in 2012 when he came out opposing California's bill AB2109, which was aimed at improving public health and ensuring parents were informed about the benefits and risks of vaccinations and vaccine-preventable diseases before they choose to opt out. The bill was passed, but not before being amended to include quacks as authorized providers that could sign off on vaccine exemptions. It was further gutted by Gov. Brown's signing statement directing the California Department of Health to add a check box for religious beliefs that would exempt parents from speaking with a health care provider before being granted exemption from school vaccination requirements for their children.
Since then, Schneider has popped up now and then, spouting easily disproved anti-vaccine nonsense, even after being corrected numerous times. But shockingly, and what prompted the most recent to-do, was his appearance in a State Farm commercial, reprising his old Saturday Night Live character Richard Laymer, aka the "Makin' Copies" guy. The "Steve's Kid" commercial ran fairly briefly:
Those who are aware of Rob Schneider's anti-vaccine comments saw this ad as very discordant. On the one hand, State Farm is an insurance company. Among its products is health insurance, including vaccine coverage. It even promoted National Immunization Awareness Month. And then they feature a public, outspoken anti-vaccine activist celebrity in one of their ads. It would be akin to the NAACP hiring Jesse Helms as their spokesperson. Or a psychiatrist airing an ad with Tom Cruise.
Several science promoters started a social media campaign to let State Farm know that they made a poor choice of spokesperson, to put it mildly. The insurance company eventually removed the ad from rotation, since Schneider's appearance in the commercial became a liability and distraction from their message and product.
Naturally, insults started flying State Farm's way, and the expected "free speech" arguments cropped up. Schneider himself decided to quote George Washington [EDIT (10/6/14): Rob Schneider has since deleted this tweet, but a cached version can be found here]:
That (mis-)quote is from Washington's Newburgh Address on March 15, 1783, when General Washington tried (and succeeded) to prevent a mutiny by his officers instigated by an anonymous author. Unfortunately for Schneider, his insinuation that his freedom of speech was being taken away is, like many things he says, wrong.
Just like with Jenny McCarthy and The View, no one is taking away Rob Schneider's right to say whatever stupid s**t he wants to. Censorship and freedom of speech are things that I take very seriously, and I will vehemently defend Schneider's right to spew whatever nonsense he desires, as long as it does not lead to proximate harm, of course. But in the ad, Schneider was not voicing his opinion or engaging in a free speech act. He was delivering lines as an actor. He was lending his personality and image to advance State Farm. Their policy holders engaged their freedom of speech to voice their opinion about the inappropriateness of tying the State Farm brand to a vocal anti-public health celebrity.
Rob Schneider is in need of being reminded that while he is free to voice his erroneous opinion of vaccines, he does not have the right to not be criticized. And boy does he deserve to have his nonsense pointed out, considering he's parroted (in all caps) the "vaccines didn't save us" trope. He wrote to California Governor Jerry Brown about the MMR/CDC manufactroversy, showing that he did not understand the situation nor detect the dishonesty of those promoting the story. He even compared AB2109 to the Nuremberg Laws under Nazi Germany.
This all comes amid the largest measles outbreak in the United States since before 2000. As of September 20, we have had 595 cases of measles. That is just 1 case shy of tying the last five years' worth of measles cases combined. Let's put this into perspective. From the year 2000 through September 20 of this year, there have been a total of 1,838 cases of measles in the U.S. One third of that total is just from this year. In that time, there have been two deaths from the disease. Somewhere around 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 3,000 people who contract the disease. So with the cases we've seen so far this century, we've had one death per thousand cases. Add to that a roughly 10%-20% hospitalization rate, on average, and you should get the picture that this is not a minor disease. There is a reason that we vaccinate against it. Rob Schneider is actively promoting the spread of this disease, whether he realizes it or not.
But let's make this a bit more personal to Schneider. His grandmother hails from the Philippines. One might presume, therefore, that he probably has some relatives still living there. In 2013, the island nation saw 2,232 confirmed and epidemiologically linked cases, of which 23 died. This year has been even worse. In the first half of the year alone, there were 16,214 confirmed cases of measles and 91 deaths (about 5 deaths per thousand cases). According to an article on Rappler.com, some factors that have contributed to this major outbreak have been pockets of low vaccination, slow uptake of second dose of a measles-containing vaccine and disasters that have affected the infrastructure and medical facilities in a number of regions. What does Rob Schneider think of the Filipino government's mandatory vaccination program aimed at eliminating measles and other diseases? What would he say to those families who have lost their children to measles?
Measles does not care about geographic or political boundaries. That outbreak in the Philippines is responsible for a sizable portion of the outbreaks here in the U.S. The largest domestic outbreak, in Ohio, started because some unvaccinated individuals traveled to the Philippines, became infected, and returned to spread the disease here. Just recently, another infected individual may have exposed others to measles at Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle.
These outbreaks can be completely avoided, but only if enough people are vaccinated. Measles is an incredibly contagious disease, one of the most contagious ones known to man. Yet Rob Schneider apparently does not care about that. He shows a disregard for the death, the hospitalizations that measles leaves in its wake. He exemplifies the sort of person who would tell the mother of a child who was hospitalized or died from measles, who was infected by his own child, that his right to choose is more important than her child's life. That is the kind of person that State Farm decided to use to promote their products, and the sort of person they discovered was at odds with their products.
In the United States, we enjoy a great amount of liberty when it comes to speaking our minds. The First Amendment guarantees that the government cannot infringe on those rights. But it does not guarantee that anyone has the right to a platform to broadcast their opinions, nor that they are exempt from criticism or the societal consequences that result. The response to State Farm featuring Rob Schneider in their ad was not governmental suppression of his speech rights. It was private individuals using their rights to free speech to let State Farm know what they thought of their ad choice. And State Farm exercised their rights to decide whether they wanted to be associated with someone so at odds with public health.
Rob, despite your erroneous claims about free speech, you are not being repressed.