Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Anti-Smoking Researcher Urges Newspaper to Ban Opposing Comments from Public Forum

A prominent anti-smoking researcher attempted to get a newspaper to ban comments from several individuals who disagreed with his position on the protection of residents of multi-unit dwellings from secondhand smoke exposure.

The anti-smoking advocate wrote: "The Greenbelt Patch that has carried several stories on the Schuman v. GHI & Popovic trial. The site has a Message Board, which has been attacked by semi-pro Tobacco Industry Spammers with the obvious intent of drowning out support for Schuman. These spammers, who go by the names of Michael J. McFadden, a FORCES.org columnist, as well as Kevin Mulvina, and Magnetic, among several others, invariably pollute the message boards relating to on-line tobacco-related stories with the clear intent of drowning out alternative opinion with their fanatical flat-earth pseudo-science. Some webmasters have become wise to this, and some moderated sites have banned these industry moles. Unfortunately this has not happened with the Patch blog."

In response, the newspaper wrote: "Free speech allows for dissenting opinions, no matter what any individual thinks about each one, or collectively all of them. When we start talking "bans," we really are saying "censorship." That's the thing about free speech, we can't have it both ways."

The Rest of the Story

While I happen to agree with the advocate's position on secondhand smoke in multi-unit dwellings and I believe that nonsmokers deserve a remedy in the case that smoke is polluting the air in their apartments and causing health effects, I do not believe that censorship of opposing comments from private individuals is appropriate. So I agree with the position that the newspaper took.

I believe that public health is just that: "public." It involves regulating the behavior of the public and we should therefore be willing to listen to what the public has to say, even if we disagree. Censorship does not advance our interests, even if it silences the "opposition."

The advocate would have a point if these individuals were actually tobacco industry representatives or if they were being paid by the tobacco industry to state these opinions. In that case, it would not be unreasonable to restrict the comments or to require that the authors disclose their tobacco industry affiliations. However, the advocate provides no evidence that these individuals are paid by the tobacco industry and the truth is that they are indeed private individuals and not industry representatives.

So there are actually two problems here. One is the promotion of censorship. The second is the making of false public accusations about individuals in an attempt to discredit them. Discredit all you want but do not base it on false and unsupported public accusations.

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