SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge in California temporarily blocked enforcement of a new state law that allows regulators to punish doctors for spreading false or misleading information about Covid-19 vaccines and treatments to their patients.
The law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, intended to address the waves of misinformation that have occurred over the course of the pandemic.
Although the law’s wording had been adapted to a limited extent, Judge William B. Shubb of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled Wednesday that its definitions of misinformation and uncertainty about its application were “ unconstitutionally vague.”
The case is one of two legal challenges facing the law, the first of its kind in the nation to try to address a problem that the US Surgeon General, American Medical Association and others have said has cost sickness and unnecessary lives.
In December, another judge in the Central District of California denied an injunction in a similar case. The split verdicts increase the likelihood that the fate of the law will ultimately be decided in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.
“I think the judge saw the law for what it was: an attempt to silence doctors who disagree” with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other regulatory bodies, said Jenin Younes, an attorney of the New Civil Liberties Alliance in Washington. she who represented five doctors who filed the lawsuit.
Judge Shubb, who was appointed by President George HW Bush in 1990, wrote in his ruling that he did not consider the question of whether the law violated First Amendment free speech protections. Instead, he found that the statute’s provisions violated plaintiffs’ due process rights under the 14th Amendment.
The law expanded the authority of the California Medical Board, which licenses physicians, to designate the dissemination of false or misleading medical information to patients as “unprofessional conduct.” That could lead to a suspension or revocation of a doctor’s license to practice in the state.
Judge Shubb ruled that the definition of misinformation—“false information that is inconsistent with contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care”—could have a chilling effect on physicians’ interactions with their patients. He granted a preliminary injunction to block the law, pending a full hearing on the complaint.
One of the plaintiffs, Aaron Kheriaty, a psychiatrist who has challenged many government policies that have emerged during the pandemic, said in an interview Thursday that the law was too rigid, especially given evolving understanding of how best to deal with a pandemic like this. . .
“Today’s misinformation, quote unquote, is tomorrow’s standard of care,” he said.
Governor Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.