Debate on freedom of speech regarding vaccines at Woodford Folk Festival

The Woodford Folk Festival is one of Australia's largest and most popular festivals with approximately 130,000 people attending over six days and six nights. On this year's speakers list is anti-vaccine lobbyist Meryl Dorey, spokesperson for the Northern NSW-based Australian Vaccination Network (AVN).

The AVN are a self-declared vaccine safety watchdog, “pro-choice” campaigners and list amongst their aims, to “empower people everywhere to make informed health choices for their families and themselves”. The NSW Health Care Complaints Commission in 2009 issued a public health warning about the AVN's website. Despite assertions from the AVN that they are “pro-choice”, the commission concluded that their website “provides information that is solely anti-vaccination, contains information that is incorrect and misleading, (and) quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous”. The AVN, in the past, has also been accused of harassing the parents of a baby who died from whooping cough, going so far as to call the Director of North Coast Area Health Service demanding to know the details of the child's death.

One of the sponsors of the Festival, the Moreton Bay Council have issued a statement which says they do “not endorse the views of anti-vaccination campaigner Meryl Dorey...” and “Council is a committed supporter of the Immunize Australia Program...” Despite the controversy, Queensland Arts Minister Rachel Nolan, whose department is sponsoring the festival, said it supported jobs and tourism. “The Government, and I, as Arts Minister, are not going to be some kind of moral censor,” she said. “Who is contracted for the event is a matter for the festival. The Government's position has not changed. We support the vaccination of all Queenslanders.”

Festival director Bill Hauritz said that he had been too busy to give any consideration to the appropriateness of Ms Dorey's appearance. Mr Hauritz said he would refer the matter to the festival's management committee for consideration. He was not aware of any reaction by festival sponsors towards Ms Dorey's scheduled appearance.

Public health academic Jon Wardle, of the University of Queensland, said although he disagreed with Ms Dorey's vaccination message, she should be allowed to present her views at public forums. Dr Wardle said he believed criticism by the pro-vaccination lobby of Ms Dorey's festival appearances had been counter-productive.

Chrys Stevenson, a member of the Australian Skeptics, said she was opposed to Ms Dorey being included on the Woodford program, given it was supported by the taxpayer. “What I'm against is someone who, after 12 months of investigation has been shown to be putting up false and misleading information, being given a platform at a large festival, which is not about health,” she said.

Ms Dorey said security guards would be on hand for her appearances at the festival on December 29 and 30. She accused the Australian Skeptics and a Facebook group, dubbed Stop the AVN, for being behind a campaign to have her pulled from the festival. “They've been attacking us for over two and a half years now. Those attacks have included death threats,” Ms Dorey said. “Every time I go to a seminar anywhere, the Stop the AVN try to get the venue to cancel. I find it quite disturbing that there isn't an outcry. People are not considering the implications of allowing someone to interfere with the discussion of a political issue. Freedom of communication is guaranteed in Australia.”

Australian Medical Association Queensland president Richard Kidd said he respected freedom of speech but called on Woodford organizers to ensure all sides of the vaccination debate were presented.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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