Physician-Disseminated Misinformation: Public Health Impact and Free Speech Implications in the United States and France

Jillian Frechette, MSPH Class of 2023

Name: Jillian Frechette
School: Mailman School of Public Health, Class of 2023
Mentor: Batya Elul, PhD, MSc and Ingrid Callies, PhD, LLM

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At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization declared an infodemic, characterized by a deluge of true, misleading, and false misinformation during a disease outbreak. In attempting to determine what is true and what is false, much of the public turns to physicians. However, a not insignificant number of physicians around the globe have been responsible for disseminating medical misinformation to the public. For the sake of public health, it is therefore important that this phenomenon is put to rest. In the context of freedom of speech, however, legal and ethical considerations must be considered when restricting such speech. This project thus explores the different legal limits on freedom of expression for physicians spreading medical misinformation outside of the clinical setting in  two liberal democracies, the United States and France. A review of the public health literature emphasizes the global impact of physician-disseminated misinformation, with a particular focus on the prolonging of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a comparative review of legislation and case law, we find that in both countries, the government bodies responsible for physician licensure have the most leeway for sanctioning physicians. However, in the United States, the First Amendment significantly limits the government’s ability to sanction these physicians and restrictions are variable by state, whereas French law, particularly le Code de déontologie médicale is better suited to acting against physicians who disseminate misinformation.