The documentary “Root Cause” is terrible. I’m not here to debunk the ridiculous claims made by this film, but if you’re looking for that, this Snopes article, the AAE list of talking points, and Dr. Scott Froum's "Do root canals cause cancer?" article are good places to start. What I’d like to discuss is whether or not it’s dangerous for these filmmakers and Netflix to create and distribute something that is objectively false.
The First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law “. . .abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .” and I will protect that American right with all of my heart. However, there are some limitations to that freedom of speech. No doubt you’ve heard the famous expression, “You can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” That comes from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who in the 1919 case of Schenck v. United States wrote:
“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”
The specific case that was being tried in 1919 has since been partially overturned as it was deemed in retrospect to not have been an illegal activity. But the overall sentiment still holds true today. It is wrong for someone to make statements that are knowingly false that create panic and/or place others in danger.
I believe the limitations on freedom of speech should be extended to include knowingly false statements about health care. If the vast majority of the scientific and health-care professional communities agree on something, then boldly stating the opposite should not be protected by the First Amendment. I realize that statement may make many of you uncomfortable. We value our right to speak our minds and not face punishment from the government. But I think the greater risk is to allow the public to be persuaded by objectively false claims to make poor decisions that can affect their lives and the lives of others.
This is not the first time Netflix has distributed truly bad science, nor will it be the last. In 2017, Netflix debuted "What the Health," a pro-vegan documentary that infamously made the claim that eating an egg a day is as bad as smoking five cigarettes a day. Understandably, the medical and nutrition professional communities were upset, as noted in this Time article. And it was recently announced that Netflix made a controversial deal with Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop, a company that has sold health and wellness products with suspicious and unsupported claims.
I am not suggesting that our government ban civilized discourse. But there is a clear difference between journalism and fear-mongering. There is a clear difference between raising legitimate questions and profiting from disinformation. Lying about or willful ignorance of health-care evidence is dangerous and should not be protected under the First Amendment.
Chris Salierno, DDS
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