Gov. Gavin Newsom may have been prescient when he acknowledged free speech concerns as he signed California’s covid misinformation bill last fall. In a message to lawmakers, the governor warned of “the chilling effect other potential laws may have” on the ability of doctors to speak frankly with patients but expressed confidence that the one he was signing did not cross that line.
Yet the law — meant to discipline doctors who give patients false information about covid-19 — is now in legal limbo after two federal judges issued conflicting rulings in recent lawsuits that say it violates free speech and is too vague for doctors to know what it bars them from telling patients.
In two of the lawsuits, Senior U.S. District Judge William Shubb in Sacramento issued a temporary halt on enforcing the law, but it applies only to the plaintiffs in those cases. Shubb said the law was “unconstitutionally vague,” in part because it “fails to provide a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice of what is prohibited.” His ruling last month clashed with one handed down in Santa Ana in December; in that case, U.S. District Judge Fred Slaughter refused to halt the law and said it was “likely to promote the health and safety of California covid-19 patients.”
The legal fight in the nation’s most populous state is to some extent a perpetuation of the pandemic-era tussle pitting supporters of public health guidelines against groups and individuals who resisted masking orders, school shutdowns, and vaccine mandates.
California’s covid misinformation law, which took effect Jan. 1, is being challenged by vaccine skeptics a …