Free Speech vs Ethics of Medical Professionalism: Is There a Boundary?
Did anyone watch CBS's "60 Minutes" on Sunday? The one segment I wish to consider is the one on "eco-terrorists" and particularly the Animal Liberation Front and Dr. Jerry Vlasak, a practicing trauma surgeon in Southern California, who is an apparent spokesperson for some extreme animal rights groups and who has told audiences that it is time to consider assassinating people who do research on animals.
The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) website quotes Dr. Vlasak as saying:
“I think there is a use for violence in our movement. And I think it can be an effective strategy. Not only is it morally acceptable, I think that there are places where it could be used quite effectively from a pragmatic standpoint.
For instance, if vivisectors were routinely being killed, I think it would give other vivisectors pause in what they were doing in their work - and if these vivisectors were being targeted for assassination, and call it political assassination or what have you, I think if -- and I wouldn't pick some guy way down the totem pole, but if there were prominent vivisectors being assassinated, I think that there would be a trickle-down effect and many, many people who are lower on that totem pole would say, ‘I'm not going to get into this business because it's a very dangerous business and there's other things I can do with my life that don't involve getting into a dangerous business.’ And I think that the -- strictly from a fear and intimidation factor, that would be an effective tactic.[ Ref: Dr. Jerry Vlasak Replies to Media Libel]
And I don't think you'd have to kill -- assassinate -- too many vivisectors before you would see a marked decrease in the amount of vivisection going on. And I think for 5 lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million non-human animals.
And I -- you know - people get all excited about, "Oh what's going to happen when - the ALF accidentally kills somebody in an arson?" Well, you know I mean -- I think we need to get used to this idea. It's going to happen, okay? It's going to happen.”
In the ALF link above, the Animal Liberation Front defends Dr. Vlasak’s comments with:
In making these claims, Vlasak certainly entered into controversial territory, shocked and angered vivisectors and other speciesists, and even got banned from the UK. But his words fall squarely within the First Amendment of the US Constitution and therefore are constitutionally protected. The very essence of the First Amendment is to protect unpopular speech, words that many people might find offensive and objectionable, statements such as Vlasak made at the AR2003 conference. Everyone knows that exploiters of any kind love free speech so long as they are the ones using it in honor of their detestable motives and unconscionable actions. Had Vlasak actually advocated violence against vivisectors in such a way as to incite and possibly provoke immanent violence, he would have crossed a legal line. Despite the frenzied distortions of critics who favor violence toward animals but not toward humans, Vlasak in fact did not cross this line.
My concern is not about Dr. Vlasak’s view on the treatment of animals. He has every right to his view and to his wide-spread dissemination of his view even as a physician. Incidentally, with regard to that view, it is difficult for me to understand the rationale a physician against animal research can give treating emergency room patients with instruments and drugs and procedures that are the result of animal experimentation. On the other hand I wonder how a humanistic physician can have compassion for a patient and working for patient survival and at the same time bear views and at times broadcasting the suggestion to kill those humans with whom he disagrees but who have not committed any crime or penalized with a death sentence by the courts?
The issue I would like to present is whether speech that may be considered as free speech and within legal bounds for a layperson becomes restricted speech for a physician. In other words, does becoming a physician and accepting the professional role as set by society, sets a boundary to free speech which is limited by the ethics set by the profession of medicine. All physicians, I believe, should be humanistic in their intent and their acts. Thus speech by a physician should not be free that encourages vigilantes to kill persons carrying out some unacceptable but legal activities. ..Maurice.