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Basketball legend John Stockton and Children’s Health Defense (CHD) are among the plaintiffs suing the Washington Medical Commission, alleging it violated doctors’ First Amendment right to criticize the “mainstream COVID narrative” and denied the public the right to hear such criticism.

Stockton v. Ferguson, filed March 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, seeks “to protect the right of physicians to speak, and the right of the public to hear their message.”

Stockton, a basketball hall-of-famer and Olympic gold medalist, also co-hosts the “Voices for Medical Freedom Podcast.” According to the lawsuit, Stockton joined the lawsuit to advocate in favor of the public’s right to access “soapbox speech.”

“There’s this broader silencing effect where people aren’t even actually being directly censored,” Stockton told The Defender. “Their speech is just being chilled. So, they’re not expressing what they believe in, what they want to say for fear of these sorts of repercussions. I look at it as one of these things where you just can’t stay silent.”

Attorney Rick Jaffe, who was counsel in a lawsuit that successfully challenged California’s medical misinformation law, said Stockton’s placement as the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff symbolizes the importance of protecting the public’s right to listen.

“This is my fifth lawsuit against medical boards,” Jaffe said. “The other suits had a physician as the lead plaintiff.” While those lawsuits “talked about the right to receive information,” Jaffe said he “wanted to strongly and symbolically make the point that it is ultimately about the right of people to have access to dissenting professional voices.”

Kim Mack Rosenberg, CHD general counsel, said the commission’s censorship “hurts not only those doctors and others who have valuable information to share but also the public, who has a right to receive and evaluate a variety of viewpoints and opinions.”

Rosenberg told The Defender “Government censorship at this level violates not only protected free speech rights but reeks of a ‘nanny state,’ where the government dictates what it believes is best for its citizens.”

CHD, in addition to being a plaintiff, is financially supporting the lawsuit. Other plaintiffs include Dr. Richard Eggleston, Dr. Thomas T. Siler, Dr. Daniel Moynihan and approximately 60 yet-unnamed doctors facing disciplinary proceedings by the state’s medical commission.

The commission subjected Siler and Eggleston to disciplinary proceedings after they published articles critical of the mainstream COVID-19 narrative. Moynihan alleges the commission’s actions “chill his willingness” to speak publicly.

Washington Attorney General Robert “Bob” Ferguson and Kyle S. Karinen, executive director of the Washington Medical Commission, are named as defendants.

Right to speak ‘meaningless if nobody has the right to hear’

According to the lawsuit, the Washington Medical Commission “investigated, prosecuted and/or sanctioned approximately 60 physicians” since September 2021 for their “soapbox speech,” referring to “written or verbal communications to the public.”

“Going back 70 years, every judge and Supreme Court justice who has written on professional soapbox speech has stated that it is fully protected by the First Amendment and/or said that it cannot be the subject of government regulation or restriction,” the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, a July 21, 2021, Federation of State Medical Boards press release prompted the medical commission’s actions against doctors.

The press release stated: “Physicians who generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation are risking disciplinary action by state medical boards, including the suspension or revocation of their medical license.”

Due to their “specialized knowledge and training,” physicians “possess a high degree of public trust” and “have an ethical and professional responsibility” to share factual, “scientifically grounded and consensus-driven” information, the federation said.

“Spreading inaccurate COVID-19 vaccine information contradicts that responsibility, threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk,” the federation added.

Stockton seeks to protect the public’s right to access soapbox speech. According to the complaint, the “actions of the Defendants directly impinge on that right.”

Stockton told The Defender:

“Not all of us have gone to medical school for eight or 10 or 12 years … Most of us have to get our information from these brilliant people who have done that type of thing. I … not only hope that they’re willing to share the information, but it’s my right to hear it.

“We have a right to hear that and not have that hidden from us because a government or an institution thinks we don’t deserve to hear it.”

Jaffe praised Stockton’s stance. “For many Americans, John symbolizes our core values of hard work, intensely focusing on the task at hand and excelling without a lot of fanfare. I can think of no better Washingtonian to speak for and champion the people of Washington.”

Medical censorship affects the doctor-patient relationship

The doctor-patient relationship is harmed by state medical boards’ interventions against medical speech, plaintiffs said.

“If free speech is suppressed, the practice of medicine will be changed drastically for the worse,” Siler said.

He told The Defender:

“Back in my career, there were always disagreements about diseases and treatments which were discussed and debated from the literature and people often came to different conclusions. Patients learned these differences and sought the treatment they thought best. This is a healthy medical environment.

“Now it feels like Big Pharma/Government are colluding to squash dissent and debate. Why can’t I and others who have written similar things have a public debate based on the literature and let the public decide what to believe?”

Eggleston said, “Physicians are placed in a no-win situation if they are prevented from giving information to patients to make a truly informed decision on medical treatment. They may be subjected to censure, fines or loss of license to practice. The real loser is the patient.”

“Patients and families of patients have been deprived of alternative answers outside the ‘narrative’ of the government and media,” Eggleston said. When such speech is “blocked by government ‘guidelines’ — which are effectively mandates — and media suppression of discussion, then truth will be covered up.”

Attorney Todd Richardson, who is also representing the plaintiffs in Stockton v. Ferguson, agreed.

“When doctors are muzzled and unable to inform their patients of the facts, then patients cannot give true informed consent for any treatment or procedure,” Richardson said. “And if a patient cannot consent, then has he not lost his autonomy and self-agency, that sets him apart from the animals at the vet clinic?”

Doctors’ speech ‘chilled’ by threat of disciplinary action

Eggleston, a retired ophthalmologist who is facing an administrative proceeding, has previously sued the Washington Medical Commission.

In 2021, Eggleston launched a monthly column for the Lewiston Tribune, which largely focused on COVID-19 and the government’s pandemic measures. In August 2022, the commission charged him with “professional misconduct,” “misrepresentation or fraud” and “interference with an investigation or disciplinary proceeding.”

In May 2023, a Washington appellate court stayed the commission’s hearing against Eggleston. However, the appellate court subsequently lifted the stay and sent the case back to the District Court for further review.

In the meantime, Eggleston said he remains “prohibited from … writing in the local newspaper’s editorial page an ‘opinion’ about treatments that are effective.”

“The rights of physicians and patients to give and obtain truthful information is in great peril if actions like those of the Washington Medical Commission are allowed to stand,” Eggleston said. “This will be indicative of what society can expect in all aspects of life.”

Like Eggleston, Siler also is a retired physician who was board-certified in internal medicine. According to the lawsuit, the medical commission’s action against him is “based on several posts … in which he challenged aspects of the approved government COVID narrative.”

The commission launched an investigation in 2021, and on Oct. 23, 2023, charged Siler with professional misconduct and misrepresentation or fraud, claiming that some of the statements he posted demonstrated a “reckless disregard of the truth that promulgated misinformation regarding the SARS-CoV-2 virus and treatments for the virus.”

Siler said the investigation chilled his speech, as he “refrained from writing anything further while awaiting the investigation.”

Jaffe said that aside from protecting the right to listen, Stockton v. Ferguson also seeks “to stop the administrative cases against Drs. Eggleston and Siler.” This would then apply to all of the commission’s other administrative cases involving medical speech.

Jaffe added that he believes the case will eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.