Meet the Physician Who Stepped Forward To Tackle the Leviathan of Government Censorship
The scope and breadth of the Biden administration’s anti-‘disinformation’ campaign is unlike anything that we’ve seen in the past, Aaron Kheriaty suggests.
Aaron Kheriaty didn’t set out to be a plaintiff in a potentially historic First Amendment case. He was happy being a physician and professor of psychiatry at the University of California. He was an expert in medical ethics. Then he lost his job for refusing a Covid vaccine. And one day he got a call from a lawyer for Missouri, about a lawsuit against the Biden administration over censorship.
Dr. Kheriaty had already sued his employer, “the largest educational system in the world,” because it had fired him, he notes. He’d sued California and Governor Newsom. “I guess they can take me out and shoot me,” he thought. “But at that point, I wasn’t too worried about what was going to happen or my public reputation. I just wanted to try to fight to do the right thing here.”
That’s how the first private plaintiff got involved in the case now known as Missouri v. Biden. Dr. Kheriaty reached out to his colleagues, epidemiologists Jayanta Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, whose criticism of Covid lockdowns in October of 2020 was declared “dangerous” by Dr. Anthony Fauci and other government officials. They agreed to serve as co-plaintiffs.
Others claiming they had been censored by the government joined the lawsuit, which was initiated by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana in May of 2022. The director of the anti-vaccine mandate Health Freedom Louisiana, Jill Hines, also filed, alongside the founder of the Gateway Pundit blog, Jim Hoft. The case will likely be heard at the Supreme Court once administrative disputes at the circuit court settle in the coming weeks.
To understand why he joined the case, I asked Dr. Kheriaty about what it was like for a scientist himself to be fired under accusations of being anti-science. “College students aren’t guinea pigs,” he asserted in a June 2021 Wall Street Journal article arguing that vaccine mandates violate medical ethics. “You’re actually on the side of science?” I asked him.
“I’m certainly trying to be,” Dr. Kheriaty responded, speaking on the phone from his private psychiatry practice in Orange County, California. “The idea that any scientific consensus should be fixed and unassailable would spell the end of science.” He reversed his initial support for wearing masks to ward against Covid in the face of new evidence on their lack of efficacy.
Discovery in science, as in the court of law, requires examining a variety of evidence and is compromised when evidence is withheld, be it by the university or the federal government or private parties. The refusal to listen to contrary opinions “is the opposite of doing science,” Dr. Kheriaty says. For that reason, “science and censorship are totally incompatible.”
“The Censorship Leviathan” is what Dr. Kheriaty calls his latest target — the more than a dozen federal agencies named as defendants in the suit. Much of today’s social media oversight is led not just by the platforms, he says, but by “quasi-private entities” working with these agencies “to try to outsource censorship work that would be illegal for the government itself to do.”
Prior censorship cases usually involved a federal agency or official pressuring to censor one publisher, author, or source. Here, though, “we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans on social media being censored tens of millions of times,” he says. “The scope and breadth of censorship that we’re dealing with now is unlike anything that we’ve seen in the past.”
In the absence of Supreme Court precedent, the American legal system is invoking literature to decipher the case — a sign of just how far censorship has gone. Dr. Kheriaty referenced a fire-breathing sea serpent, the Leviathan, from the Hebrew Bible. The chief judge for the Western District of Louisiana, Terry Doughty, likened the government’s actions, a self-described effort to combat “misinformation,” to Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth.”
Dr. Kheriaty summons another non-legal analogy from the novelist Walter Kirn: controlling information online is like mixing a record. “You have these government agencies sitting like sound engineers at the soundboard,” he says. “If something starts to go viral that is a criticism of our favored policies, they can just dial down the volume on the cowbell and turn up the volume on the snare drum.”
Whatever title this censorship campaign is given, what makes its operations so pernicious is their secrecy. Companies change their terms of service discreetly and often curtail content without notifying the user who shared it, simply “deprioritizing” the content in search results, Dr. Kheriaty says — often at the behest of the Biden administration.
Social media executives, he says, “eventually get worn down by the sort of emotional abuse and also by the veiled threats of the government wielding its big stick of power to make life difficult for these companies.” The platforms, end up giving in, resulting in a “viewpoint discrimination” which the district court called in its July ruling “an especially egregious form of content discrimination.”
Dr. Kheriaty wrote a book on “the biomedical security state,” which he describes as a tripartite apparatus consisting of an increasingly militarized public health apparatus, digital surveillance technologies such as vaccine passports, and intensified “police powers” of the state to declare a state of emergency “under the banner of health and safety.”
This infrastructure has functioned not as a method of controlling Covid but as a form of governance, bereft of checks and balances. President Biden, Dr. Kheriaty notes, continued Covid lockdowns longer than many public health experts advised, suggesting that “the person who accrues these additional powers is going to be reluctant to relinquish those powers even when the emergency is over.”
“Twitter is essentially a subsidiary of the FBI,” Congresswoman Nancy Mace asserted in an oversight hearing in February examining the targeting of credible doctors following demands from the government. Dr. Kheriaty concurs. “The whole infrastructure that made that possible is still in place,” he says, “just waiting for the next real or declared public health emergency.”
This Leviathan-like authority during the pandemic resembles the defendant’s — Mr. Biden — behavior in this case. The founder of the civil rights group representing four of the plaintiffs in the case, Phillip Hamburger of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, tells me that it was like “cutting teeth” to get the government to disclose information during the limited discovery phase.
“The government has been obstructionary and they’ve stymied the legal process,” Dr. Kheriaty says. “We’ve had to fight tooth and nail every single step of the way. And I anticipate the case will continue to go that way.”
It has already been a whirlwind: last week, the Supreme Court granted the government’s petition for an administrative stay on the Fifth Circuit’s injunction, which enjoined federal censorship of social media content. The stay allows the government time to make its appeal heard.
The Fifth Circuit, though, has stepped forward as it considers expanding the injunction to entities it initially excluded, especially the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, which Dr. Kheriaty calls “the central clearinghouse for government censorship.” The NCLA awaits a decision on whether the circuit court will rehear arguments to possibly expand its injunction.
What is “frightening” about the case, I suggested to Dr. Kheriaty during the conversation, is that the extensive evidence of First Amendment violations has been uncovered after only partial discovery. Much more will be disclosed through additional depositions and subpoenas for records during the trial, which could take years.
Dr. Kheriaty shares the frisson of fright. Yet, he hopes the trial could educate the public on government censorship, which is “incompatible with our constitutional order and with the society that I would hope most Americans want to live in,” he says. “We have to deal with this issue of government censorship, not just in the courts, but also in the court of public opinion.”
Dr. Kheriaty hopes for a legal victory down the road. “The actual rulings that we have from the courts have been favorable to the plaintiffs,” he says. Four federal judges have so far agreed that they could prevail on the merits of their arguments based on initial court evidence. The injunctions suggest they foresee irreparable harm to the American people between now and a final ruling.
Combatting the so-called Leviathan, though, will require much more litigation. “I think ultimately this case can definitely put a serious dent in the censorship regime,” Dr. Kheriaty says. A win for him would set crucial legal precedent. “But to fully dismantle the censorship-industrial complex, that’s going to take probably multiple legal cases.”
When I asked Dr. Kheriaty why he filed against Mr. Biden while plenty of medical experts who were also censored remained silent, his response bears no hesitation, only a laugh: “Why not?” There was no question for him on whether he’d challenge the unprecedented powers of leaders in technology and the government to restore the constitutional rights of the American people.
The battle waged by Dr. Kheriaty and his co-plaintiffs brings to mind the defense of free speech that writer Evelyn Beatrice Hill attributed to the philosopher Voltaire, cited by Judge Doughty in his July opinion temporarily halting the disinformation program: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say it.” For Dr. Kheriaty, getting fired was only the beginning of what he’d do to defend the First Amendment.
Correction: Dr. Kheriaty reversed his initial support for wearing masks to ward against Covid due to new evidence on their lack of efficacy. An earlier version misstated his views.