SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge in California has temporarily blocked enforcement of a new state law allowing regulators to punish doctors for spreading false or misleading information about Covid-19 vaccinations and treatments to their patients.
The law, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, had been intended to address the waves of misinformation that have churned through the course of the pandemic.
Though the wording of the law had been narrowly tailored, the judge, William B. Shubb of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, ruled on Wednesday that its definitions of misinformation and the uncertainty about its enforcement were “unconstitutionally vague.”
The case is one of two legal challenges facing the law, the first of its kind in the nation to try to address a problem that the U.S. Surgeon General, the American Medical Association and others have said has cost unnecessary illnesses and lives.
In December, another judge in the Central District of California denied an injunction in a similar case. The split verdicts raise the likelihood that the law’s fate could ultimately be decided at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.
“I think the judge saw the law for what it was: an attempt to silence doctors who disagree” with recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other regulatory bodies, said Jenin Younes, a lawyer with the New Civil Liberties Alliance in Washington who represented five doctors who brought the lawsuit.
Judge Shubb, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, wrote in his ruling that he did not consider the question of whether the law violates First Amendment protections of free speech. Instead, he found that the law’s provisions violated the plaintiffs’ rights of due process under the 14th Amendment.
The law expanded the authority of the Medical Board of California, which licenses doctors, to designate spreading false or misleading medical information to patients as “unprofessional conduct.” That could lead to a suspension or revocation of a doctor’s license to practice in the state.
Judge Shubb ruled that the definition of misinformation — “false information that is contradicted by contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care” — could have a chilling effect on doctors’ interactions with their patients. He granted a preliminary injunction to block the law, pending a full hearing of the complaint.
One of the plaintiffs, Aaron Kheriaty, a psychiatrist who has challenged many government policies that emerged during the pandemic, said in an interview on Thursday that the law was too rigid, especially given the evolving understanding of how best to address a pandemic like this one.
“Today’s quote-unquote misinformation is tomorrow’s standard of care,” he said.
Governor Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.