Caught in the vaccination wars (part 2)

Brian Martin

The Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) has come under sustained attack by supporters of vaccination. My defence of the AVN's right to free speech led to a range of comments, some of them raising challenging issues about forums for public debate. Here I respond to several of these comments.

Go to Part 1 and Part 3 for additional background



Matters of fact and interpretation




On 26 June 2011, the Illawarra Mercury published my article "Shouting down our freedom to choose". It summarises some of the points in my article "Debating vaccination", which deals with the vaccination debate, the rationale for stopping the AVN and tactics used in the struggle between the AVN and its opponents.

The newspaper slightly edited my submitted text, including changing the title. The online version of the article allowed reader comments. There were 43 comments over the next 36 hours before the discussion was closed (comments pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

I appreciate the efforts of those who made comments on my article - including one sent to me directly. Here, I address a few of the points raised.

Matters of fact and interpretation

Free speech

Several of those commenting stated or implied that the AVN does not have the right to express views critical of vaccination. For example, John said "people who are not experts in the field should not be permitted to express those sorts of views greatly". My view is quite the contrary: people, including non-experts, should be allowed free expression on controversial issues.

Responsibility for pornographic images

Concerning AVN members receiving pornographic images, kbnz said "The article makes it sound like they were sent by SAVN members, which is completely untrue." Peter Tierney made a similar point.

In my article, I first referred to SAVN (Stop the Australian Vaccination Network) and then referred to "Other opponents of the AVN". That was the context for my sentence about pornographic images.

I accept and respect Peter Tierney's rejection of such tactics. It would have been better for me to make my reference to "other opponents of the AVN" clearer by adding "separate from SAVN".

Experts and citizen campaigners

Maureen Chuck posted this comment.

He refers to "dissident experts" and dissident scientists" no one in the AVN has any expertise or qualification in any health field, nor are they scientists.

In my article, I initially referred to the AVN as "a citizens' group". I referred to attacks on dissident experts, mentioning the issues of pesticides and nuclear power (not vaccination). I then said "Citizen campaigners are usually left alone" before referring again to the AVN. In short, I distinguished the AVN from dissident experts. Chuck seems to have misread my article.

My views on vaccination

In my article as submitted to the Mercury, I wrote

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.

The Mercury shortened this to

Before continuing, I need to say I don't have a strong personal view about vaccination, having no children.

In my article "Debating vaccination", I elaborated on this point, to emphasise that my interest in the vaccination issue is not based on personal factors.

arthwollipot posted this comment: "Avoiding responsibility for getting vaccinated by saying 'I don't have children' is incredibly irresponsible." This is based on a misunderstanding. I did not refer to my personal vaccination status, but rather to my views on vaccination.

AVN censorship?

Several posters - Paul Gallagher, Peter Tierney, Tinkerbell, Amy, Doc Scooter, Sian Morton, Coran and kbnz - claim that the AVN censors comments on its discussion list, or in other ways, and therefore has no genuine commitment to free speech.

In my view, it is unreasonable to expect the AVN to open its forums to all comers. Every private organisation expects to be able to edit contributions on its website, Facebook page and other publications. Hardly anyone expects a corporation, sporting club, church or private law practice to open its forums to anyone, without editorial control. A sporting club is unlikely to open its columns to unlimited comments by its opponents, and a church is unlikely to open its columns to unlimited comments from adherents to rival religions.

Few organisations in the vaccination debate open their publications to comment by anyone. Health departments do not. Private medical practices do not. Pharmceutical companies do not. Medical associations do not. Why then should the AVN be expected to?

For organisations receiving public funding, such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the situation is somewhat different. They might be expected to strive for some degree of balance between opposing viewpoints. However, the AVN does not receive public funding.

SAVN's explicit aim is to shut down the AVN and hence its capacity to comment. However, the AVN is not in a position to shut down the capacity of vaccination proponents (SAVN and many others) to present facts and viewpoints about vaccination, even if it had such an intent. So there is a fundamental asymmetry in the debate in this regard. In this context, it is curious for SAVN members to accuse the AVN of censorship.

Note that having material in the public domain doesn't necessarily mean anyone can contribute. Television channels are public forums, yet not everyone has the right or option to present their views on them. Likewise with newspapers. Traditionally, the public sphere, as it's called, is created through a multiplicity of sources, not by the openness of any given source.

Editorial control is quite compatible with a vibrant public sphere, so long as editorial control is restricted to discrete domains and there are plenty of opportunities for anyone to set up alternative outlets. Anyone can set up a Facebook page. The public sphere on the net is created through many individuals creating their own forums. Those who are excluded from the AVN's discussions are quite entitled to create their own blogs.

Academic standards

Peter Tierney wrote "That Brian uses the terms 'Meryl Dorey' and 'expert' in the same article is clearly in conflict with academic standards."

Given that I refer to the AVN as a "citizens' group" and do not refer to any critics of vaccination as experts, I fail to understand what academic standards Peter is referring to.

A challenge to my account?

In my article, I said that in response to attack, "I wrote a careful response to the comments by SAVN members" and that subsequently "no SAVN member has challenged my account". That statement was made after I posted my response "Caught in the vaccination wars", notified several SAVN members mentioned in that response, and received no corrections that I thought were substantive.

However, both Peter Tierney and Paul Gallagher had sent me information and comments in response to "Caught in the vaccination wars" (part 1), and they could be taken to be corrections. I accept that my statement "no SAVN member has challenged my account" is itself open to challenge. It would have been more accurate for me to say that subseqently "no SAVN member sent me abusive comments".

In response to part 1, Peter Tierney sent me documents with a large number of screen shots from SAVN's Facebook page, revealing the use of false identities and displaying a large amount of abusive comment about him and others. The use of false identities combined with tit-for-tat comment in ongoing Facebook threads, of which I have not been a part, makes it exceedingly difficult for me to decide who is responsible for what. What I can say is that I oppose the use of personal abuse by supporters or critics of vaccination, and I have sympathy for all those who are subject to it. Not only is abuse in poor taste but I think in many cases it is counterproductive. I wrote a short discussion of "What to do when you've been defamed"; this requires updating to deal with the complexities of Facebook abuse.

Paul Gallagher posted this claim: "Not only did I challenge your account - I provided evidence refuting it." He provided a link to

I failed to see how this link to an article about microchipping and cancer related to my account, much less refuted it. I emailed Paul asking him to explain.

He replied on 6 July saying "the screenshot I sent you plainly shows Meryl Dorey's post", and then quoted its text:

This is an excellent video about the dangers of mandatory vaccination and microchipping. I had never heard of the link between microchips and cancers before. This is something we all need to be aware of!

He continued by saying that the screenshot provided

a video offered by Dorey entitled 'Mandatory Vaccination and Forced Microchipping'. More so, Dorey states she hasn't heard of microchips and cancer before - not microchips and vaccination.
By now, it must be clear I have refuted ... Ms. Dorey's denial that she believes in a conspiracy.

I replied on 8 July with this comment.

I'd like to explore one key issue, the connection between (a) Meryl Dorey saying about the video "Mandatory vaccination and forced microchipping" ( that "This is an excellent video about the dangers of mandatory vaccination and microchipping" and (b) the statement previously on the SAVN Facebook page that "They [AVN] believe that vaccines are part of a global conspiracy to implant mind control chips into every man, woman and child and that the 'illuminati' plan a mass cull of humans."

I have watched the video and tried to piece together a plausible set of steps between (a) and (b).

* The video deals with two Georgia (USA) bills dealing with mandatory policies: vaccination and microchipping. It does not say the vaccination is directly connected with microchipping. It does not say anything about a global conspiracy, nor about the Illuminati.

* RFID chips, as you may know, can be used for tracking, but do not control people (unless, perhaps, other technologies are involved).

* If Meryl sends a link, it does not necessarily mean that she believes everything in it. She referred specifically to microchips and cancer, not to a global conspiracy or the Illuminati.

* Even if Meryl believed in a global conspiracy, it does not necessarily mean others in the AVN believe in it too.

For you to say that you've refuted my statement about lack of evidence for the SAVN Facebook claim, it seems to me you have made a number of assumptions.

1. That a commentary about compulsory vaccination and (separately) the possibility of compulsory microchipping in Georgia is conclusive evidence of a global conspiracy to use vaccination for microchipping.

2. That the Illuminati are involved, even though not mentioned.

3. That microchips can be used for mind control.

4. That Meryl believes everything in the video or, alternatively, that the video reveals what she really believes.

5. That Meryl's message implies that other AVN members believe all this too.

You haven't backed up any of these assumptions.

That's why I don't think that your reference to the video refutes anything I've said, nor even made a superficially plausible case. That's why I asked you to spell out your logic.

Maybe I've missed something. If you can fill in any of the missing steps in the logic between (a) and (b), do let me know.

Paul subsequently sent me information and web links allegedly showing that some members of the AVN believe in conspiracies of various sorts. I don't believe this material comes close to justifying his claim, in response to my Mercury article, that the link to refutes my account. I suggested to Paul that he publish his material so that others can judge for themselves the evidence and the inferences he draws from it.


Most of the commenters on my article did not point to any substantive inaccuracy in it. Some respondents, including ones who contacted me by email, pointed to ways I could have been clearer, and for that I am appreciative.

Paul Gallagher was right to question my statement that "no SAVN member has challenged my account" (referring to part 1). However, I think his claim to have shown that the AVN believes in a global conspiracy, involving vaccination and microchips, lacks plausibility.

More importantly, several commenters are opposed to free speech for critics of vaccination, at least when that speech conflicts with what they believe are the facts. That was the primary issue that stimulated my article.

The comments about free speech raise difficult issues about public forums in which comment by anyone could, in principle, be allowed but in practice is not. Is it censorship to restrict or delete comments on a private Facebook page that is open for public viewing? I think not, but some might disagree. What is the best response to personal abuse on Facebook pages? This question warrants further attention.

I thank Lyn Carson, Kath Gelber and Ron Lubensky for valuable discussions relating to some of the general issues covered here, and Nicola Marks for helpful comments on the text; they do not necessarily agree with the views expressed here.

This text is my responsibility and does not necessarily represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Wollongong. This applies to all my research and writing, and should go without saying, but it seems necessary to spell it out given complaints made to university officials.

Go to

Brian Martin's publications on scientific controversies

Brian Martin's publications on suppression of dissent

Brian Martin's website

Text updated 29 July 2011; links updated 29 October 2013