A slightly edited version of this article was published in the Illawarra Mercury, 25 June 2011, p. 54.
Vaccination is an incredibly emotional topic. Supporters and critics alike can be passionate, especially when it comes to the impact on children.The Mercury recently ran a lengthy story by Kylie Matthews, "To needle or not?," presenting viewpoints of both proponents and critics. The article cited, among others, Meryl Dorey of the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), a citizens' group that advocates parental choice and provides information about negative aspects of vaccination.
The AVN has been operating for 17 years, but I only found out about it last year. In 2009, a pro-vaccination group was set up titled Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN), with the express aim of shutting down the AVN. The methods used by SAVN disturbed me.
Before continuing, I need to say that I don't have a strong personal view about vaccination. Having no children, I've never had to make vaccination decisions on behalf of anyone else. So far as I know, no relative of mine has ever suffered an adverse reaction to a vaccine.
My interest in the issue derives from my concern for free speech. I've been studying scientific controversies for decades, such as debates over nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation, climate change and the origin of AIDS.
One thing I've studied is attacks on dissident experts. On issues like pesticides and nuclear power, scientists who do research threatening to vested interests are at risk of harassment, denial of research grants, blocking of publications and even dismissal.
Dissident scientists are especially vulnerable because their expertise helps change an issue from having only one credible viewpoint to being debatable. Citizen campaigners are usually left alone.
Therefore I was shocked by what was happening in the Australian vaccination debate. The AVN was simply providing information from its viewpoint, through a magazine, emails, a website and personal contact. Citizen critics of the dominant view on pesticides, fluoridation, nuclear power and climate change have done this, seldom with any problem.
SAVN was established with the intent of shutting down the AVN, namely denying it the ability to present its view. SAVN essentially rejected free speech critical of vaccination.
SAVN's Facebook page, with thousands of members, is filled with contemptuous comment about the AVN and especially about its key figure Meryl Dorey. The Mercury ran a photo of Dorey standing in a balcony. SAVN posted this photo with Dorey's face covered by a Guy Fawkes mask, the implication being that Dorey would meet Fawkes' fate, namely torture and execution, at least metaphorically.[*]
SAVN members made dozens of complaints about the AVN to government agencies including the Health Care Complaints Commission, the Department of Fair Trading, and the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing. These complaints diverted the AVN from its normal activities.
Other opponents of the AVN posted on the web the names, addresses and phone numbers of advertisers in the AVN's magazine Living Wisdom, opening them to potential harassment. Some AVN members received pornographic images.
I received a taste of harassment myself. After I wrote articles defending free speech by critics of vaccination, one SAVN member wrote to me calling my work "unethical" and "dishonest." Others made comments on SAVN's Facebook page, for example calling me an "idiot" and a "moron."
One SAVN member made a complaint about my work to the Vice-Chancellor. Fortunately the university administration has defended my freedom to research the vaccination controversy.
Abusive comments, formal complaints and harassment can deter people from expressing their views on issues. One of the best ways to respond is to expose these methods, and to do so in a calm, informative manner.
I wrote a careful response to the comments by SAVN members, documenting their methods, and posted it on my website. This seems to have worked a charm: no SAVN member has challenged my account.
Free speech means nothing unless it protects those with whom we disagree, even if we think they are completely wrong, about vaccination or anything else.
Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong.
In response to the Illawarra Mercury's online version of this article, several people posted comments. My commentary on some of these comments is "Caught in the vaccination wars (part 2)".
* Note added 22 July 2012: Jason Brown, in his blog titled "A drunken madman", on 13 June 2012 helpfully commented that my interpretation of SAVN's use of the Guy Fawkes mask is incorrect. Rather than being seen as a metaphor for Dorey's fate, it is better interpreted as an ironic comment on Dorey's alleged pretentions. As Brown puts it, crediting Peter, "the photoshopping of the GF mask onto Dorey was a reaction to her adoption of V for Vendetta-style imagery". See http://www.mycolleaguesareidiots.com/archive/2012/06/13/Failing-at-ones-own-job.aspx
Note that my comment on the Guy Fawkes mask did not appear in the published version of this article.
Brian Martin's newspaper articles
Brian Martin's website