British Columbia

B.C. doctor disciplined for 'harmful' COVID-19 misinformation claims free speech violations

A B.C. doctor who has been the subject of numerous complaints from his fellow physicians about spreading COVID-19 misinformation is asking the courts to step in and stop his professional regulator from disciplining him.

Physicians who've filed complaints against Dr. Stephen Malthouse say his arguments don't hold water

Dr. Stephen Malthouse of Denman Island, B.C., appeared in a video posted online earlier this year, telling viewers they should not fear COVID-19. ('Canadian Doctors Speak Out')

A B.C. doctor who has been the subject of numerous complaints from his fellow physicians about spreading COVID-19 misinformation is asking the courts to step in and stop his professional regulator from disciplining him.

Dr. Stephen Malthouse alleges the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. is violating his freedom of speech. His petition, filed in B.C. Supreme Court on June 24, calls for a judge to toss out a reprimand from the college and declare that it does not have the power to take action on his public statements about the pandemic.

The petition describes the college's investigation as "singularly and exclusively based on Dr. Malthouse's exercise of his constitutional right to free speech and expression to pose scientific and medical questions with respect to the COVID measures to public officials."

Malthouse, a family doctor on Denman Island whose musings on the pandemic have gone viral in some circles, has repeatedly claimed that COVID-19 is no more deadly than the flu and that vaccines are more dangerous than the novel coronavirus.

He's publicized these scientifically unsupported ideas in videos, at rallies against public health measures, in letters to the editor and open letters.

He is represented on the petition by Toronto lawyer Rocco Galati, who has long been associated with the anti-vaccine movement and is involved in numerous lawsuits over COVID-19-related restrictions. Galati declined to comment on behalf of his client.

According to the petition, a lawyer for the college has told Malthouse that his public statements are "harmful to the public" and violate professional standards.

According to Malthouse's petition, the college told him in a May 17 letter that he would be reprimanded and forbidden from speaking on issues related to COVID-19 in response to at least 10 complaints from his fellow doctors. 

Two of those doctors said they're pleased to learn the college has taken action, and they don't buy Malthouse's arguments about free speech.

"As per this argument, a physician could claim snake oil is a 'cure-all' as a member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C., and the college would have to honour the individual's right to freedom of speech — even when it means failing to protect the public, which is their mandate," Dr. Jennifer Cochran of Rossland told CBC in an email.

Dr. Michael Vance of Nelson agreed. 

"Malthouse can go and spew whatever he wants and continue to enjoy his free speech — just not as a physician who is actively licensed in B.C.," he said.

The college has declined to comment while the matter is before the courts. A spokesperson for the B.C. government, which is also named as a defendant, said the province has not yet been served with Malthouse's petition.

Doctor alleges his claims are based on science

In May, the college issued a joint statement with the First Nations Health Authority, warning that physicians who put the public at risk by sharing anti-vaccine, anti-mask, anti-physical distancing and anti-lockdown misinformation could face investigation and possible discipline.

Multiple other professional colleges have issued similar warnings during the pandemic, including those representing naturopaths, chiropractors and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.

The bulk of Malthouse's petition focuses on investigations that began in response to his open letter to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry that was widely circulated last October. 

In the letter, written just before COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations began to spike, Malthouse claimed the pandemic is "over" and "no second wave will follow." He also asserted that measures to control the spread of COVID-19 have been far more damaging than the virus.

Malthouse appeared at a rally against COVID-19 restrictions in Duncan, B.C., in November, referring to the disease as a 'so-called pandemic.' (YouTube)

In his petition, Malthouse says the claims in his letter are "backed and supported by sound scientific and medical peer-reviewed literature and evidence."

The letter's citations include posts on websites like that of the organization founded by Robert F. Kennedy, one of 12 anti-vaccine activists nicknamed the "disinformation dozen,"  flixxy.com, a site that shares cute videos of animals and children, and sott.net, a publication that traffics in conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination, 9/11 and alien abductions.

According to Malthouse, college investigators tried on multiple occasions to schedule an interview with him to discuss the complaints, but he refused to attend when he was told the college would not record the virtual meeting, citing privacy concerns. There is no suggestion in the petition that Malthouse was not permitted to record the interview.

The petition alleges the college's actions show institutional bias in favour of public health officials, and suggests the B.C. government is acting outside of provincial jurisdiction by enacting measures in the Health Professions Act that affect public speech.

Malthouse claims the college's action against him "relies on the nebulously and overly broad and undefined notion of 'widely accepted' information as the only expression a health professional is entitled to express, and is contrary to … Charter freedoms which extend to the protection of minority views which the CPSBC regard as wrong or false."

None of the allegations have been proven in court and the college and provincial government have yet to file responses.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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