Court halts California COVID-19 misinformation law

A federal court has blocked California from enforcing a state law that allows regulators to punish physicians for spreading misinformation or disinformation related to COVID-19, according to Bloomberg Law and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Judge William B. Shubb, of the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of California, issued a preliminary injunction Jan. 25 in response to a request from physicians opposed to the law, the outlets reported. 

Five physicians licensed by the Medical Board of California, who are represented by the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group, alleged the law would violate their First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights, the NCLA said in a Jan. 25 news release.

At issue is a law signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 30. California law already allowed the Medical Board of California and the Osteopathic Medical Board of California to punish any licensed physician and surgeon for "unprofessional conduct." Under the new law, such conduct includes dissemination of misinformation or disinformation related to COVID-19 to a patient under a physician's direct care. Punishment could include suspending or revoking a physician's California license, The New York Times reported.

The lawsuit from physicians alleges that the law violates physicians' rights by restricting the medical advice they can provide to patients, according to the NCLA release. 

Because the "'contemporary scientific consensus' lacks an established meaning within the medical community," and thus, because the 'scientific consensus' is not well-defined and is vague, physicians are 'unable to determine if their intended conduct contradicts the scientific consensus, and accordingly 'what is prohibited by the law,'" Mr. Shubb said, according to the release.

Mr. Shubb's decision, which addresses the plaintiffs' 14th Amendment challenge to the law, splits with a previous decision from Central District Judge Fred W. Slaughter, who allowed the law to take effect, Bloomberg Law reported. Mr. Slaughter's ruling has been appealed, according to the publication.

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