Physicians Who Disseminate Medical Misinformation: Testing the Constitutional Limits of Professional Disciplinary Action

34 Pages Posted: 18 Nov 2021 Last revised: 19 Jul 2022

Date Written: November 11, 2021

Abstract

There have been increasing calls in the medical community for revoking the licenses of physicians who disseminate medical misinformation, such as false claims about the safety of vaccines or the effectiveness of nonpharmaceutical measures to prevent COVID-19. While no licensing board has yet imposed penalties on physicians for disseminating medical mis- information, there is evidence that boards are using the threat of disciplinary action to exert pressure on physicians who make public statements that conflict with professional standards of care. This Article argues that, in most cases, imposing disciplinary penalties on physicians for speech that takes place outside a physician-patient relationship would have dangerous policy implications and would almost certainly be unconstitutional. However, drawing on examples from the regulation of the legal profession, it argues that disciplinary actions would be appropriate under one set of circumstances: if a board can establish that a physician has disseminated information that she knows to be false or with reckless dis- regard as to whether it is true—i.e., with the “actual malice” standard applied to defamation cases brought by public officials and public figures. The Article considers the implications of this standard for different factual scenarios.

Note: Funding: None to declare.

Declaration of Interests: None to declare.

Keywords: misinformation, physicians, licensing, professional discipline, First Amendment

Suggested Citation

Coleman, Carl H., Physicians Who Disseminate Medical Misinformation: Testing the Constitutional Limits of Professional Disciplinary Action (November 11, 2021). 20 First Amend. L. Rev. 113 (2022), Seton Hall Public Law Research Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3925250

Carl H. Coleman (Contact Author)

Seton Hall Law School ( email )

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Newark, NJ 07102-5210
United States
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973-642-8194 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://law.shu.edu/Faculty/fulltime_faculty/Carl-Coleman.cfm

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