California has repealed a misinformation law that restricted the advice doctors could give patients about COVID-19, bowing to mounting legal pressure.
The legislation was signed into law in September 2022 and took effect in January. It tried to define COVID disinformation as “unprofessional conduct” and empower the Medical Board of California to revoke the licenses of physicians who diverged from “contemporary scientific consensus.”
A federal judge halted the law in January pending court challenges, and it is unclear that officials ever enforced it.
Over the weekend, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed a state Senate bill repealing the section of the state’s Business and Professions Code containing the law, according to a Saturday post on the governor’s website that offered no comment on the action. The nullification should take effect in January, one year after the law took effect.
Attorneys from the Liberty Justice Center, a Chicago nonprofit legal firm that argued against the legislation in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 17, announced its repeal Monday.
“We’re glad California repealed this bill before it could spread to other states, and we’re proud to have defended our clients’ First Amendment rights,” said Jacob Huebert, president of the Liberty Justice Center.
The Washington Times has reached out to the governor’s office for comment.
In a signing statement appended to the law on Sept. 30, 2022, Mr. Newsom acknowledged it could have a “chilling effect” on free speech. But he said lawmakers had carefully drafted it to deal with abuses and entrusted its interpretation to the Medical Board of California.
The law, he wrote, “is narrowly tailored to apply only to those egregious instances in which a licensee is acting with malicious intent or clearly deviating from the required standard of care while interacting directly with a patient under their care.”
Several California physicians disagreed and challenged the board’s right to define treatment. They filed three separate lawsuits against state officials to overturn the legislation in October, November and December 2022.
Drs. Tracy Hoeg, Ram Duriseti, Aaron Kheriaty, Pete Mazolewski and Azadeh Khatibi argued in a November 2022 suit that the law interfered with their ability to give patients timely advice as new COVID variants emerged. The New Civil Liberties Alliance, a public interest law firm, represented them in the Eastern District of California.
U.S. District Senior Judge William B. Shubb, a President George H.W. Bush appointee, granted them a preliminary injunction against the law in a Jan. 25 ruling.
“Governor Newsom and the state legislature saw the writing on the wall after Judge Shubb’s grant of a preliminary injunction in January.” Jenin Younes, an NCLA attorney involved in the case, said Monday.
Liberty Justice Center filed the first suit against the legislation on Oct. 4, 2022 — a few days after Ms. Newsom signed it into law — in California’s Central District.
Drs. Mark McDonald, a Los Angeles psychiatrist, and Jeff Barke, an Orange County primary care physician, argued in that complaint that the law violated their constitutional right to free speech and the spirit of scientific inquiry.
In statements on Monday, the two doctors expressed mixed feelings about their legal victory.
“What a shame that it required the precious resources of time, money and stress to preserve our constitutional rights of free speech and medical freedom,” Dr. Barke said.
“We need real accountability, or this will happen again,” added Dr. McDonald.