In a recent guest column, Professors James G. Hodge, Jr. and Doug Campos-Outcalt explore ways to limit presidential candidates’ speech about a link between vaccines and autism. Noting recent comments by Trump, Carson and Paul associating vaccines and autism, the authors decry the politicians’ “free pass” to “spread such public health lies.” They even suggest that the candidates’ statements are the equivalent of yelling “gun fire” in a crowded theater and accuse them of being “brokers of public health fabrications.” Strong stuff! As the authors correctly note, however, the First Amendment offers little support for their proposed censorship.
As a threshold question, though, how do the authors know that the candidates’ underlying assertions are false? Has a vaccine-autism link been “debunked,” as they suggest? With the US autism rate among children continuing to skyrocket,having climbed from 1 in 110 children in 2011 to an estimated 1 in 45 children today, the question is critical. Are those who make a connection between autism and vaccines yelling “fire” in a crowded theater? Or, alternatively, are those who seek to suppress free speech trying to restrict people from yelling “fire” in a theater when there is indeed a fire, thus escalating potential harm? Can we possibly hope to establish truth without robust public discourse? I for one do not think so. The US embraces free speech more fully than any other country in the world precisely to ensure that the marketplace of ideas, and not government censors, ultimately decide what constitutes truth.