By Brendan Pierson
(Reuters) - A U.S. judge has blocked a California law that sought to penalize doctors who spread "misinformation or disinformation" about COVID-19 while he considers a pair lawsuits challenging it on free speech grounds.
Senior U.S. District Judge William Shubb in Sacramento ruled on Wednesday that Assembly Bill 2098, which was signed last October by California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, was too vague for doctors to know what kind of statements might put them at risk of being penalized."COVID-19 is a quickly evolving area of science that in many aspects eludes consensus," he wrote.
The preliminary order means that the law cannot be enforced while Shubb hears two lawsuits brought against the law shortly after its passage last year - one by a group of five doctors, and another by a doctor and two advocacy groups including Robert F. Kennedy Jr's Children's Health Defense, which has long promoted false information about standard childhood vaccines.
"This Act is a blatant attempt to silence doctors whose views, though based on thorough scientific research, deviate from the government-approved 'party line,'" said Greg Dolin of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a lawyer for the doctors, in a statement. "At no point has the State of California been able to articulate the line between permissible and impermissible speech."
Newsom's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Under AB 2098, doctors can be disciplined for spreading misinformation about COVID, defined as "false information that is contradicted by contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care."
The doctors said in their lawsuit that the law gave them no way to know what was "contemporary scientific consensus," and violated their right to free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
They said that doctors who give harmful advice to patients are already subject to malpractice lawsuits and discipline under existing state law.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed briefs supporting the plaintiffs in both cases, saying that while the state did have the power to punish doctors for spreading harmful false information, AB 2098 was a "blunt instrument" that went too far.
(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Bill Berkrot)