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Senior United States district judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, William B. Shubb, granted a request for a preliminary injunction, made by a group of California physicians, against enforcement of AB 2098 – a controversial law that placed the severe restrictions on physicians against providing “misinformation” about COVID-19 to their patients.

It was signed into law on September 30, 2022, and codified at Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 2270 and was effective January 1, 2023. This law empowers the Medical Board of California and the Osteopathic Medical Board of California to discipline physicians who “disseminate” information about Covid-19 that departs from the “contemporary scientific consensus.”

The statute provides that “[i]t shall constitute unprofessional conduct for a physician and surgeon to disseminate misinformation or disinformation related to COVID-19, including false or misleading information regarding the nature and risks of the virus, its prevention and treatment; and the development, safety, and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.”

Plaintiffs are five physicians, licensed to treat patients in the state of California. Last November they filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court in the Eastern District of California alleging that AB 2098 violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and expression, their patients’ First Amendment rights to receive information from them, and their Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process of law.

Section 1 of AB 2098 lays out the ostensible justification for the bill including that the spread of misinformation and disinformation about Covid-19 vaccines has weakened public confidence4 and placed lives at serious risk; and that “major news outlets” have reported that health care professionals are “some of the most dangerous propagators of inaccurate information regarding the COVID-19 vaccines.”

Section 2 deems it “unprofessional conduct for a physician and surgeon to disseminate misinformation or disinformation related to COVID-19, including false or misleading information regarding the nature and risks of the virus, its prevention and treatment; and the development, safety, and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines”

“Misinformation”is defined as “false information that is contradicted by contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care. ” However Judge Shubb pointed out that the “Act neither defines nor provides guidance for determining the meaning of ‘contemporary scientific consensus.’ “

AB 2098’s sponsor, the California Medical Association, argued that this law is needed because of physicians who “call into question public health efforts such as masking and vaccinations.”

In his Order Granting a Preliminary Injunction Judge Shubb pointed out that the Supreme Court of the United States has stated that “the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas,” which “is an inherent corollary of the rights of free speech and press that are explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Having determined that plaintiffs have standing to bring this action, the court considered whether they have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits, a requirement for issuing a preliminary injunction.

Plaintiffs contend that the law’s definition of “misinformation” is unconstitutionally vague under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A statute is unconstitutionally vague when it either “fails to provide a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice of what is prohibited, or is so standardless that it authorizes or encourages seriously discriminatory enforcement.”

The operative question under the fair notice theory is whether a reasonable person would know what is prohibited by the law. Vague statutes are particularly objectionable when they “involve sensitive areas of First Amendment freedoms” because “they operate to inhibit the exercise of those freedoms.”

Judge Shubb pointed out that the “Defendants provide no evidence that “scientific consensus” has any established technical meaning; the expert declarations they offer are notably silent on the topic.”

In Forbes v. Napolitano, 236 F.3d 1009, 1010 (9th Cir. 2000), amended, 260 F.3d 1159 (9th Cir. 2001) the Ninth Circuit considered a vagueness challenge to a law prohibiting medical “experimentation” or “investigation” involving fetal tissue from abortions unless necessary to perform a “routine” pathological examination.

In that case the terms “investigation” and “routine” were problematic because multiple common definitions could apply in the medical community, which “[lacked] any official standards to help” define the terms. Id. at 1012. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that because the contested terms lacked sufficiently clear, commonly understood definitions in the medical community, and the statute failed to provide narrowing definitions, the statute was unconstitutionally vague. The lack of definitional clarity failed both to give doctors fair notice of what conduct was prohibited, and to give courts and law enforcement sufficient standards by which to narrow the terms’ meanings.

Judge Shubb then wrote that like the contested terms in Forbes, “contemporary scientific consensus” lacks an established meaning within the medical community, and defendants do not propose one. At oral argument, defense counsel declined to explain what specific conduct the law may prohibit, arguing that application of the law is highly fact-specific.

He went on to say that Courts have based their understanding of scientific consensus on a wide range of sources, including U.S. professional organizations, international professional organizations, state and federal courts, U.S. scientific studies, international scientific studies, various federal agencies, and the state of California.

And because the term “scientific consensus” is so ill-defined, physician plaintiffs are unable to determine if their intended conduct contradicts the scientific consensus, and accordingly “what is prohibited by the law.”

Because plaintiffs have “established a likelihood of success on the grounds of their Fourteenth Amendment vagueness challenges,” the court did not address the merits of their First Amendment arguments.