Public Health Official Forced To Shut Up On Twitter, Blog For Daring To Speak Honestly

from the real-names? dept

We’ve been discussing lately the importance of allowing for pseudonymity, rather than requiring real names, and Todd McDermid points us to another reason why pseudonyms can be useful online. Apparently a guy named Rene Najera has been blogging and tweeting about epidemiology while at the same time being employed by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Apparently, he was quite good at it, and many folks found his posts and tweets to be useful and informative.

However, he recently got into a Twitter discussion in which he defended vaccinations. I recognize this is a touchy subject to some, but only to those who don’t pay attention to what the science actually says (or those who ignore that the main report anti-vaccination folks use was later found to be fraudulent). Given the serious health problems created by parents now refusing to vaccinate their children due to clueless anti-scientific fear-mongering, you would think that a government Department of Health would be thrilled that one of its employees was defending vaccinations and talking back to someone who was arguing against vaccines.

Instead, however, it appears that after the guy he was arguing with sent a barrage of emails to higher ups at the agency, Najera was told to stop “all social networking activity related to public health.”


Now, it seems there are two issues here. One, as the article points out, this shows yet another situation where the ability to blog/tweet/etc. pseudonymously might help. If Najera was doing that, the person he was debating with wouldn’t have been able to bombard his employer. That said, neither platfrom that Najera seemed to mainly use (Twitter and Blogger) does require real names, so he could have gotten away with being pseudonymous on those platforms (and perhaps will come back some other time doing so).

I think the bigger issue is that a Department of Health would reprimand him for such actions and tell him to stop speaking about public health issues. Does the Department of Health really prefer that the actual experts stay out of these discussions, leaving them to those who aren’t informed?

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Comments on “Public Health Official Forced To Shut Up On Twitter, Blog For Daring To Speak Honestly”

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97 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: They'll come

Hey, I’m mostly anti-vaccination, and I still disagree with what the department of health did here. As a government entity, it has no business restricting the free speech of his employees regardless of whether he is pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination.

Though I’m sure big pharma would be interested in correcting this on free speech grounds ๐Ÿ™‚ They have the resources.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: They'll come

> As a government entity, it has no business
> restricting the free speech of his employees
> regardless of whether he is pro-vaccination
> or anti-vaccination.

Most government agencies have a “one voice” policy and employees aren’t allowed to speak publicly about agency business without permission. That’s certainly the case with my agency. There have been several instances where I’ve stopped myself from commenting here on TechDirt about things which could be construed to apply to our jurisdiction.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: They'll come

“Most government agencies have a “one voice” policy and employees aren’t allowed to speak publicly about agency business without permission.”

and that’s a bunch of nonsense. Us taxpayers need to stand up against this nonsense and demand that the government do away with such ridiculous policies.

Pitabred (profile) says:

Re: Re: They'll come

You realize that “big pharma” barely profits from most vaccines, and the main reason they still make them is because the government protects them from litigation with a special fund? http://www.hrsa.gov/vaccinecompensation/index.html

Vaccines are a GOOD thing. They’re a way to train your immune system to fight diseases without you actually having to catch said disease. And they’re highly safe and effective, if you actually take the time to check out the science.

Go ask someone who is crippled from polio whether they’d rather have been vaccinated or not. Or an infant in an ICU with whooping cough. Or a kid with measles. I really think that this whole anti-vaccination kick is because people have no clue about how horrific the diseases we’re inoculated against can be.

http://www.vaccineinformation.org/pertuss/photos.asp
http://www.vaccineinformation.org/measles/photos.asp
http://www.vaccineinformation.org/polio/photos.asp
http://www.vaccineinformation.org/rubella/photos.asp

Go ahead. Look at all of those photos. Look at the abject terror in the eyes of chose children. And tell me that the infinitesimally small number of people that have adverse reactions to vaccines is worse than that. Don’t say that it can’t happen here… we stop getting vaccinated and it DOES happen here.

/rant

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: They'll come

I really think that this whole anti-vaccination kick is because people have no clue about how horrific the diseases we’re inoculated against can be.

I really think that this whole anti-vaccination kick is because people have come to distrust doctors in general. I don’t think [reasonable] people doubt that those big-name diseases are really bad if you catch it. It’s less about “is polio really that bad” and more about “how do I know you’re telling me the whole story” and “I survived childhood with 1/2 these vaccinations, why does my child need all this,” and “is it really a good idea to be inflicting such an aggrssive schedule (often times a half-dozen vaccines within a couple months) to young children?”

Rose M. Welch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 They'll come

Sorry what? You’re clearly seeing things that he didn’t say.

His point was that you should ask people to tell you their feelings about their health, and then use those anecdotes to make a medical decision.

If he wanted people to make a rational choice, he should have given numbers and sources, not emotion, emotion, emotion.

Chris ODonnell (profile) says:

If was tweeting anonymously though he would be just another joker spewing his opinion over the Internet. The fact that he wasn’t anonymous, that he was an accountable public official telling us the truth, is what made his tweets valuable, and quite frankly, made him dangerous in the eyes of the anti-vaccine crowd.

I’m a supporter of anonymity online, but I don’t think this is a case that really supports that issue. This is a case of public officials forgetting that telling the truth should never be discouraged.

Trails (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I agree. This certainly raises the discussion of within what contexts can an employer limit an employee’s speech.

More importantly, it raises questions around what the hell the Maryland Dept. of Health is thinking, in locking down an employee from advocating against a position which is both wholly debunked by science and KILLS PEOPLE.

Aside, everytime I see you post, I think to myself “My god, Robin is posting on techdirt!”

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You are right. There are strengths and weaknesses to posting anonymously as well as posting publicly. You have to weigh those yourself when you speak.

In this case, the person tweeting didn’t see any reason why he should post anonymously as he was supporting the position of his employer. Unfortunately, his employer only saw that he was causing waves and made him stop. Sad.

However, if he was bringing something to light that his employer didn’t want public and that was detrimental or even just disagreeable to his employer’s position, then posting anonymously would have been a huge benefit.

A Guy says:

The government can definitely stop speech related to employment. The entire defense/security infrastructure relies on it.

That being said, I doubt this would stand up to constitutional muster. If it was public information and he was blogging outside of the office, I believe he could challenge any disciplinary action in court.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The right of free speech is this:

He has a right to advocate vaccines, and should be defended as free speech.

You have a right to claim that vaccinations are the worst threat to the health of humanity ever, and that right of speech should be defended.

You should have the right to call him out for facilities, debunk his views, provide proof, or even speak louder, and that should not be abridged.

He should have the right to provide proof, debunk studies, yell louder, or write ballads to the worthiness of vaccines, and that right should not be quashed by anyone.

And we the outsiders can point, laugh, mock, parody, insult, or satire the view of the anti-vaccine crowd as an excise of our speech, without fear of retribution.

All tallied, the only one to be silenced, is ‘him’, where as ‘you’ get to keep talking your view without risk of loss of employment or livelihood.

So forgive me if I seem unsympathetic when I ask this, but what exactly is your point?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

If your children are vaccinated then why are they being endangered. There have been some bad experiences with vaccinations in my family and will avoid certain vaccines because of it. I am not against vaccines but I am also not for taking everything without understanding the details.

Pitabred (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You are exactly the type of person that benefits from widespread vaccination. There are some people with legitimate issues. The vast majority of us don’t have them. The rest of us need to get vaccinated to protect those of you who actually do have a problem.

The people who choose not because of autism or some vague “toxin” argument to are simply selfish and stupid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

???

No it doesn’t, it puts at risk anyone without the antibodies to fight the diseases the vaccines are for, not the people already vaccinated otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a vaccine would it?

I all for bashing the anti-vaccination crowd but with facts, or was you joking and I lost the sarcasm in there somewhere?

IrishDaze (profile) says:

Re: Re:

This is about GOVERNMENTAL retribution because someone disapproved of non-threatening, non-defamatory speech. Remember that “Free Speech” is supposed to protect individuals from GOVERNMENTAL retribution.

Just because those of us who hang out here are much more likely to agree with _actual_science_ (pro-vax) vs. anecdotes or superstitious hokum (anti-vax and autism “cures”) and are occasionally snarky about it doesn’t mean that your “free speech rights . . . are worthy of ridicule” — It means that other PEOPLE find your MESSAGE worthy of ridicule.

Seriously, return to us with your argument as soon as it’s made public that there has been GOVERNMENTAL retribution for the anti-vax stance. I expect that would be a situation into which we could sink our teeth.

I am not trying to be mean here, but pls understand that the governmental retribution the vaxer health official experienced is a metric-crap-ton worse than a group of glorified BBS users poking fun at anti-vaxers.

Trails (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You can say it all you want. You can make the unsupported and risky decision to not vaccinate your kids (this is not free speech though). I can mock you as a gullible fool, and shake my head at the unfortunate plight of your kids, put at risk by a parent/guardian duped by a fraud doc in the UK who manufactured data in an attempt to cash in on a lawsuit and subsequent panic, and now too stubborn to look at the facts rationally.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

No, you have free speech rights to say you don’t want to vaccinate your children. Whether or not you actually have a right not to get them vaccinated, however, has nothing to do with free speech. Note also that MY right to free speech allows me to ridicule your position on vaccines. I don’t feel too bad about doing this, as a drop in vaccination rates KILLS CHILDREN.

FormerAC (profile) says:

Is it about vaccines? Or a claim of defamation?

Or is Mr. X just a jerk?

Having read through the comments over at http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2011/08/a-public-servant-blogging-and-twitter-under-his-own-name-is-silenced-by-his-employers.html Mr. X (Rhett Daniels – he outed himself in the comments) says he is not anti-vax.

He claims there it was a defamatory blog post by Najera. Mr. X went for the nuclear option and not only threatened legal action, but contacted pretty much everyone with any authority at Mr. Najera’s work.

In the comments on the blog post about this issue, Daniel’s comes off as a real jerk, threatens and insults pretty much everyone in the thread.

Lord Binky says:

Re: Is it about vaccines? Or a claim of defamation?

Either way it seems like harassment by Mr. X by dragging Najera’s bosses/coworkers into this when it is Najera’s personal blog/twitter. Either way it didn’t prove Mr. X’s argument right or wrong, it was just mean spirited and intended to harm Najera and simply a childish thing to do.

A. New Psuedonym says:

I participate pseudonymously in TechDirt discussions, and on other forums, about copyright, with emphasis on the music industry.

My employer, a Very Large Organization, has an Official Policy on copyright issues which has been framed to placate the copyright holders. At work, I have a small role to play in enforcing that policy. Everyone involved in this process at my place of business agrees that these policies are insane and useless. However, for the sake of peaceable continued employment, it would be better not to have my Real Name associated with expressions of my honest evaluations of these issues.

So, if I do sign up for Google Plus, I won’t be getting involved in any copyright discussion there.

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I work for a company that licenses much content from copyright holders. Part of my job has included implementing DRM (I don’t like it but the alternative is not being able to offer the content to users, so this is better) and other ridiculous restrictions from copyright holders. Copyright holders act as though this whole reality thing is just a fad that will go away soon enough. People who go negotiate with copyright holders often come back frustrated at not being able to say: “Your content is already on torrent sites! Why do you want us to implement all of these restrictions which will only bug people who give you money and in no way stop copyright infringement?”

Bottom line: I’m not about to start discussing such matter with my real name as that might jeopardize my company’s relation with the copyright holders and my job.

A Guy says:

Re: actuallly..

There is not “proof” of anything of the sort. There is some evidence that some people with previously damaged chromosomes, that can be tested for, shouldn’t get all their vaccines on the same day.

Other than that there is a fraudulent study written by an attempted scam artist to scare people out of getting vaccines for personal profit.

Neither of these things qualifies as definitive proof.

I know… don’t feed the troll… but I cannot seem to help myself today.

Rose M. Welch (profile) says:

Re: Re: actuallly..

You’re both wrong. The issue isn’t what the data does or does not show. The issue is the data that doesn’t yet exist. Some of the gaps are being researched, but the manufacturers have no liability and thus, no reason to waste money filling information gaps or improving vaccines at all.

Also, the debunked study in question? It’s a straw man, only cited by people who are blindly pro-vaccine. People who actually choose not to vaccinate usually do so piecemeal (weighing each medication and it’s attendant risks) and have neither read that paper nor give a shit what celebrities have to say about health care.

Last, but certainly not least, Mike’s line about non-vaccinating parents causing actual public health issues is total bullshit. (Sorry, Mike. For once, you’re wrong.) According to the CDC, immunizations have remained both steady and high and have not dropped, no matter what your favorite mainstream news source would have you believe about `plummeting’ vaccination rates. Less than 1% of America’s children are unvaccinated, and this number includes immunocompromised children who cannot be vaccinated.

The real trouble is more likely to be the number of adults who haven’t been re-vaccinated for things like pertussis (which may not help anyway, since it’s been show to be mutating around the globe).

Almost Anonymous (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: actuallly..

“””Last, but certainly not least, Mike’s line about non-vaccinating parents causing actual public health issues is total bullshit. (Sorry, Mike. For once, you’re wrong.)”””

You seem to be referencing this line:

Given the serious health problems created by parents now refusing to vaccinate their children due to clueless anti-scientific fear-mongering, you would think that a government Department of Health would be thrilled that one of its employees was defending vaccinations and talking back to someone who was arguing against vaccines.

A slight future-tense modification makes it not “bullshit” and quite valid:

Given the serious health problems that would be created by increasing numbers of parents refusing to vaccinate their children due to clueless anti-scientific fear-mongering, you would think that a government Department of Health would be thrilled that one of its employees was defending vaccinations and talking back to someone who was arguing against vaccines.

Rose M. Welch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 actuallly..

Nope, still bullshit. See, the number of parents refusing to vaccinate isn’t growing. (According to the CDC, anyway, whom I trust to have the correct numbers. Other people may be listening to their sourceless news media instead, so whatever.)

So, to FTFY:

Given the serious health problems that would be created…

Given the serious health problems that may be created…

…by increasing numbers of parents refusing to vaccinate their children…

…by a low and steady number of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children…

…due to clueless anti-scientific fear-mongering…

…for many reasons, including religious reasons, allergies, immune issues, valid concerns, lax parenting, and clueless fear-mongering…

…you would think that a government Department of Health would be thrilled that one of its employees was defending vaccinations and talking back to someone who was arguing against vaccines.

…you would think that a government Department of Health would be thrilled that one of its employees was defending vaccinations and talking back to someone who was arguing against vaccines, as long as they were acknowledging the fact that vaccination rates among children remain both steady and high, and the less than 1% of parents who chose not to vaccinate include those who do so for valid medical reasons.

Jesse Townley (profile) says:

Crossing fingers for a spine to be grown...

Ugh, I hope the timid bosses @ the Department of Health either grow a spine or are overruled by their bosses.

Glad to see the ridicule of anti-vaxxers here. Their decision to not vaccinate impacts the rest of the population, and endangers the young, weak, and old amongst us.

For instance, infants under a year old are too young to be vaccinated, so they’re at risk if the area’s vaccination level is below 95% (that’s the % that pretty much guarantees measles won’t spread in a community)

This 2010 blog post talks about measles outbreaks in Vancouver, San Diego, & Switzerland:
http://vaccinesandevolution.blogspot.com/2010/04/measels-outbreak-because-anti-vax-is.html

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

If You Don?t Vaccinate ...

… then you are getting a free ride from all those around you who are vaccinated. It is they who are protecting you from infection.

Unfortunately, if too many people choose the free-ride option, then the whole protection system breaks down.

Yes, there are risks from vaccination. But they are dwarfed by the risks from the diseases we vaccinate against.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: If You Don?t Vaccinate ...

Yes, there are risks from vaccination. But they are dwarfed by the risks from the diseases we vaccinate against.

I don’t think that’s what you mean; in our society currently, the risk posed by any of the diseases we vaccinate against is slim to none — the vaccines are working, so it’s unlikely that anyone (even the unvaccinated) will get them. The consequences of getting the diseases in question are monumental and staggering, but the risk involved takes into consideration the likelihood in addition to the consequence.

Regardless, if vaccines work, then the vaccinated have nothing to fear from the unvaccinated. The ones who are endagered by other’s choices are those who can’t be vaccinated, because of medical problems or the like. Their only protection is herd immunity, and that’s what breaks down when more people “opt out.”

lujlp says:

Re: Re: If You Don?t Vaccinate ...

Sadly, no. As more people dont get vaccinated and such diseases spread it also allows for a chance for such diseases to mutate into a different strain with is not affected by vaccinations.

While it is true some are unable to take vaccines for medical reasons, for everyone else it should be mandatroy. You want to live in and benifit from a modern scociety? You have to help maintain that scociety

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: If You Don?t Vaccinate ...

You may have a fair point there, I’ll concede that — but I’d be strongly against mandatory vaccinations without some VERY strong protections and high standards for quality. Letting the Government (or anyone) freely inject me and my family with whatever they feel like on some vague “it’s better for society” line isn’t something I will stand for.

anarchic teapot (user link) says:

Factual correction

I think the bigger issue is that a Department of Health would reprimand him for such actions and tell him to stop speaking about public health issues.

EpiRen was not reprimanded for posting about health issues AFAIK. What his employeur was unhappy about was it that easy for anyone to identify EpiRen and therefore, since he has an unusual name, his employer – so far, so good, but using department contact info available online the troll sent a threatening pseudolegal email to anyone he could hunt down who might be professionally connected with EpiRen. His employer decided he wanted no part of this shit and asked EpiRen to stop blogging openly.

While this is disappointing, it is understandable. Dozens of people were affected by this idiot’s action, and there are more interesting things to do in life than read ill-spelt delusional rants.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mr. X seems ripe to join the Tea Party.

“? Authoritarianism: respondents believe that obedience by children is more important than creativity, and that deference to authority is an important value.

? Libertarianism: respondents believe there should not be regulations or limitations on expressions such as clothing, television shows, and musical lyrics.

? Fear of change/ontological insecurity: respondents sense that things are changing too fast or too much.”
http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-08-reveals-cultural-characteristics-tea-party.html

That also seems a description worthy of the MAFIAA.

Wes Sumner (profile) says:

Anti-vaxers make me LOL. Right before they make me shudder.

There’s been several investigative reports on PBS and the like about this bunch.

They’ve basically put everyone else in danger is what it boils down to. In areas where there are “significant” numbers of anti-vaxers, diseases which are normally only still prevalent in the 3rd World are having outbreaks and killing people.

Courts are also starting to prosecute these people if their children die from the preventable diseases. I believe criminal negligence and voluntary manslaughter were the latest successful charges brought against these nutjobs – anti-vax parents out in like Oregon or Washington State who let their daughter die because they refused to get her vaccinated.

Pastafarians have more scientific evidence in support of the FSM being the Supreme Divinity than the anti-vax crowd have against vaccines.

To be honest, vaccinations should be mandatory, period. I have no desire to live in a repeat of the age of Cholera, Yellow Fever, have my relatives go blind from measles, or have my son die because some jerkwad decided to be a DERP about a vaccination.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And if you knew what herd immunity was, you’d recognize that it’s not a concern for vaccinated individuals. If the vaccine works they have real immunity and don’t have to worry about the disruption of infection chains that herd immunity brings.

That is to say, herd immunity is about not coming in to contact with the disease, and that’s irrelevent if you’ve been vaccinated.

Almost Anonymous (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I understand precisely what herd immunity is, and that it’s not an individual concern (dur, herd?) EXCEPT insomuch as it’s all of our concern to keep the “herd” strong. When individuals decide not to vaccinate, then they endanger the herd. I’m pretty sure that’s what the OP meant, although I don’t want to put words into his mouth.

Chris Rhodes (profile) says:

Re: Re:

To be honest, vaccinations should be mandatory, period.

Yeah! I want government to have the power to inject anything they want into me or my children, and not have any say about it! That’s the ticket to a better world!

(And yes, my kids will damn sure be vaccinated, but it will be because it’s the right choice, and not because some douche-nozzle politician decides they get to micro-manage every aspect of my life and body.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think I know what you’re talking about, but I remember that the issue wasn’t just that they wouldn’t vaccinate her but that they wouldn’t let her be treated by a doctor period; they thought God would save her if they prayed hard enough.

Conflating religious nuts with people that have doubts about the effectiveness and safety of vaccines doesn’t help your argument much.

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