Freedom of Speech, Again

Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences of speech.

I was reminded of that again today, listening to a sound bite of Dr. Mehmet Oz criticizing his critics for trying to silence him — or at least get him removed from the faculty of Columbia University’s medical school. The fraudster invoked freedom of speech as a fundamental right — but he missed the point that it’s the government who’s obligated to respect the freedom of speech, as well as the fact that the freedom is not absolute.

There are two points that Dr. Oz needs to remember:

  1. You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater without good cause.
  2. With great authority comes great responsibility, including not abusing the privileges of that authority.

Inciting panic or general fear-mongering is not necessarily protected speech; it depends on the severity of the consequences. If Oz gives credence to nominal remedies that are at best inert and quite possibly harmful, he may deter people from accepting valid treatments. That violates a physician’s first rule, “Do no harm.”

In fact, his standing as a physician is what obligates him to refrain from endorsing quackery. His standard of behavior is greater, because the state has recognized him as a medical doctor and granted him specific privileges. Just as a lawyer can be sanctioned for dispensing blatantly incorrect legal opinions, so a doctor is obligated to meet a higher standard when discussing medical topics or rendering aid to a person in physical distress. (This becomes an added risk for physicians and nurses who volunteer as first aid booth volunteers or ski patrol members.)

Mehmet Oz is not some random citizen spouting opinions about topics for which he has no particular expertise. He’s recognized by both the state and Columbia University as an expert in a field, and both the state and the University have the right to expect his speech to reflect that expertise.

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