Should Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Go To Jail For Being A Vaccine Denier?

Brian Seasholes Policy Analyst, Reason
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Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the prominent environmental activist, thinks people who disagree with him on climate change should go to jail and corporations that disagree “should be given the death penalty” by having their charters revoked. He even goes after Charles and David Koch, accusing them of “treason,” which is a violation of the Constitution, for their purported views on climate change.

“Do I think they should be in jail?” Kennedy asks. “I think they should be enjoying three hots and a cot at the Hague with all the other war criminals.” He adds, “Do I think the Koch brothers should be tried for reckless endangerment? Absolutely, that is a criminal offence and they ought to be serving time for it.”

Jail, charters revoked, treason, war crimes, and reckless endangerment? Whatever happened to the left’s defense of free speech? Mario Savio, the face of the Free Speech Movement founded in Berkeley in mid-1960s, but who died in 1996, must be turning over in his grave.

But let’s take Robert Kennedy Jr. at his word. So by his own standard, shouldn’t Kennedy go to jail for being a vaccine denier? After all, he has a long track record of denial.

In 2005, Kennedy appeared on the Late Show with Jon Stewart to peddle his anti-vaccine lunacy; claiming vaccines cause autism and that there is a massive conspiracy to cover this up involving the U.S. government, academic researchers and the vaccine industry. Stewart, normally a skeptical host, sat entranced — even fawningly telling Kennedy “I appreciate you getting the word out” — in what amounted to a seven minute anti-vaccine infomercial.

Yet Stewart has no problem slamming prominent conservatives for vaccine denial. Just this week, he called out two likely Republican presidential candidates; Senator Rand Paul for views on vaccines much milder than Kennedy’s, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for saying parents should have some choice in vaccinating their kids. Stewart also conveniently glossed over his embarrassing 2005 love-in with Kennedy.

Kennedy is such a wing-nut on vaccines that even his erstwhile media allies are calling him out. The Daily Beast ran an article last year titled “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Twisted Anti-Vaxx History.” Laura Helmuth, Slate’s science and health editor, wrote a hilarious and disturbing article on Kennedy’s anti-science views on vaccines. She describes a phone call with Kennedy, which she was probably dragooned into by her superiors, as “stuck on the phone” because “When he calls you to discuss vaccines, he talks a lot, uninterruptably.” And in 2011, Salon retracted a 2005 story it co-published with Rolling Stone on the purported vaccines-autism link.

The alleged link between vaccines and autism has been subjected to intense scientific scrutiny. As a result, there are over one hundred peer reviewed articles in scientific journals debunking any link between vaccines and autism. Furthermore, the one peer reviewed scientific article on which all vaccine denial hangs was retracted in 1998 by the journal that published it because it was revealed to be based on fraud. “Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism,” according to Rob Ring, Chief Science Officer with Autism Speaks, the leading autism advocacy group. “The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism. We urge that all children be fully vaccinated.”

Which brings us back to Robert Kennedy, Jr., who apparently has superior insight and knowledge than that of the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, and any reputable doctor or scientist. Kennedy has even reportedly stated that Dr. Paul Offit, and like-minded people should be jailed. Offit is a distinguished pediatrician, co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine that saves hundreds of lives daily, and one of the most outspoken people on the nonexistent link between vaccines and autism.

So by Robert Kennedy Jr.’s own climate change standard, it looks like he should go to jail for his views on vaccines. Of course this never will or should happen, but it illustrates the absurdity of Kennedy’s intolerance of dissent.

The world is a diverse place, with lots of different people and opinions. Unfortunately, this upsets Kennedy. One thing, though, is clear. Robert Kennedy Jr.’s views on vaccines is helping contribute to a climate of confusion and fear that is doing enormous damage to public health. If there is ever a vaccine for intolerance, incivility and irrationality, Kennedy should be the first recipient.