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Defending Our Freedom and the First Amendment

AMERICAN OUT LOUD - Peter Breggin MD & Ginger Breggin - NOV 21, 2022

Medical boards are already taking it upon themselves to punish physicians who challenge the prevailing COVID narrative. Our friend and colleague Meryl Nass is facing this kind of abusive fight right now. A much-deserved vigorous defense is being mounted with the support of many courageous physicians.1

Medical societies have always exercised the authority to censure doctors for their conduct and speech, and even to remove their medical licenses. But now, the California legislature has gone out of its way to passing a redundant law specifically about threatening COVID dissenters with the power of the Medical Board of California to remove their licenses.2 Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed the bill into law.3 We will return to the California offense against medical freedom in the conclusion of this column.

The Attack Against My License in 1987 for Remarks on Oprah Winfrey

It was terrifying at first and then became the most significant victory of my life and Ginger’s because I went from being a largely unknown “maverick” psychiatrist to being a public force with total exoneration and an apology — far more than we had hoped for. It also led to getting a contract for my first best-selling book, Toxic Psychiatry: Why Empathy, Therapy, and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock, and Biochemical Theories of the “New Psychiatry.”

As a young psychiatrist, I had earned my enemies by being critical of the state mental hospitals in the surrounding area of Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia. Among many other things, I had also debated some professors of psychiatry about drugs, to their chagrin and resentment, and criticized medications at a big symposium at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC.

I had, in fact done nothing wrong. Ginger had joined me in 1984, and we were proud of our reform work together. I was simply the first psychiatrist in history to challenge psychiatric treatment in principle, at its very roots in fake science. I demonstrated scientifically in books and peer review articles that all psychiatric treatments — drugs, electroshock, and psychosurgery “work” by impairing brain function and have no essential curative or beneficial value. Their presumed benefits to the individual are usually nothing more than blunting mental function and putting the individuals out of touch with their own suffering. Their benefits to other people are the ability of the drugs, in varying degrees, to make most people more subdued, more compliant, and less difficult.

I also examined the science behind the medical model for emotional and mental problems and showed that no psychiatric diagnoses had been proven genetic or biological in origin. I was, and continue to be, science-based, and psychiatry is not. Psychiatry’s power base is not science but pharmaceutical industry money.

They Had to Stretch Too Far to Get Me

Since no patients had complained about me, the forces after my license had to utterly concoct something. They went after me for remarks I made on Oprah. In 1987, the pharmaceutical industry organized an attack on my medical license in Maryland, my home state at the time. They brought the charges through a stand-in, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), which I later exposed in my book Toxic Psychiatry as being funded by the industry. The materials NAMI sent to the Medical Board included some with “Property of the American Psychiatric Association” printed on them, indicating their involvement in pushing this action against my professional status and career, which the APA Medical Director later admitted to me.

NAMI charged that I had behaved unethically on Oprah Winfrey, speaking words that caused patients to stop taking their drugs and then to “suicide” — although not a single such tragedy could be located by them or anyone else.

I had been invited onto Oprah, the first of many times, to join a group of psychiatric survivors and reformers who were talking about psychiatric abuses. The survivors had asked Oprah to bring me to verify their stories of the rampant abuses within institutional psychiatry.

A few seconds before the show’s end, Oprah asked me how a person should select a psychiatrist or therapist. Here is The Washington Post’s account of what happened next:

At issue specifically are remarks Breggin made when asked by Winfrey how he would advise a troubled person to select a psychiatrist.

“You judge the therapist,” Breggin said, according to a transcript of the April 2 show. “Find the little part in you that loves yourself and see if you’re being loved by your therapist. See if that person cares for you, supports you. If that person offers a drug, don’t even say, ‘No, thank you.’ You can take the prescription and go. Don’t fight about it, don’t get in trouble, but go. Don’t take the drugs. And relate to people who care for you as a person. That’s the whole key. That’s the starting point.”

Later, Breggin added, “You have to be very cautious and especially avoid anyone who’s diagnosing you, offering you drugs, offering you a hospital, or has biology or electroshock attached to his associations.”

The Washington Post went on to observe:

Specialists in the field of medical ethics said they viewed the complaint against Breggin as highly unusual, one that appears to pit a doctor’s right to express his views against his ethical responsibility to avoid causing harm to patients. But even some of Breggin’s detractors said they had never heard of the investigation of such a complaint against a doctor.

Our Initial Response to the Threat

With her PR experience, Ginger helped me literally make a book of testimonials from luminaries, all of whom cited my already long history of reform work (33 years by 1987). They included several members of the U.S. Congress, leaders of civil liberty organizations and pioneering psychiatric groups, and others with whom we were continuing to work. Our attorney, who was the former head of the DC ACLU, said he had never in any of his cases seen such an outpouring of support from so many people, including members of Congress, and with only two weeks-time within which to do it.

Much of the documentation for the case, including excerpts from the media and the testimonials, can be found in “Chapter 5: Winning the Medical License Attack” in The Conscience of Psychiatry: The Reform Work of Peter R. Breggin, MD (2009).4

We knew and liked many lawyers who formed an informal committee, along with our actual lawyer. Their sole purpose was to restrain the fighting reform spirit of the Breggins so as not to antagonize the doctors who would be judging us in a two-step process. First, we would go before the ethics committee of the Maryland Medical Society, a branch of the AMA, itself a group I had criticized. They would vet us to make a nonbinding recommendation to the Licensing Board for Medicine concerning whether or not to pursue the case against us or to drop it.

When our lawyers warned us not to go to public but instead to play the game in as innocent a manner as possible, Ginger didn’t like the idea all. She had training and experience in PR, and this didn’t seem right. She found and contacted other physicians around the country who had been investigated by their medical societies, and she got a very different response from them than from the lawyers.

They told her, in effect, “The people who join these boards are authoritarians who love sticking it to people.”

Ginger felt confirmed, and with her PR skills, she probably saved “our license” (see ahead).

Ginger went to work contacting the media, who responded with surprising interest compared to when we had previously contacted them about our reform work. In those days, freedom of speech mattered on some level to the press, and they were much more eager to defend the First Amendment than to criticize psychiatry, which was and remains a kind a secular “religion” to the liberal media.

In a matter of weeks, Ginger developed relationships with The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, and the Associated Press, as well as other publications and influential people.

Meeting with the Maryland Medical Society

I was called to a hearing by the Maryland Medical Society, which is a branch of the AMA, in order for them to make a preliminary recommendation to the state Licensure people about whether or not to take the case.5 They allowed me into the hearing with my lawyer.When they said I could not bring my wife Ginger, I refused to enter the room without her, and they quickly relented. Ginger turned out to be very key that night.

We sat on one side of large rectangular table that filled the room wall to wall: me, Ginger, and our lawyer. Across the room was the chairwoman, an Ob-Gyn, as I recall. On both sides of the long table sat at least a dozen other physicians whom I did not know, including one psychiatrist. I was especially worried about him, since I was such a critic of my profession.

As in most such inquisitorial hearings, the atmosphere was cold and somewhat hostile, but we remained very calm. At one point, a man who reminded me of childhood bullies on a playground, I think he was an orthopedic surgeon, declared he had read the whole Oprah transcript, not just my words at the end for which I was being charged. He complained that I had said that psychiatric drugs can cause “brain damage.” He was nearly seething that I would tell this fabrication to the public.

I asked the orthopedic surgeon if he knew what tardive dyskinesia is. He looked mystified and answered, “No.” I turned to the entire group and said, in effect, “You see, even doctors do not know the dangers of the psychiatric drugs most often given to the patients in hospitals and other institutions.” Then I asked, in a friendly manner, “May I give the committee a brief seminar on tardive dyskinesia and other forms of brain damage from psychiatric drugs?”

The one doctor on committee raised his hand in answer to my offer to give a seminar on psychiatric drug-induced brain damage. A psychiatrist on the committee could shoot down my request. I didn’t know that he was an old-school, nearly extinct kind of psychiatrist, who specialized in actually helping people through family therapy.

Before I could feel all my fear, the psychiatrist said, “Yes, Doctor Breggin, please give us a seminar on brain damage from psychiatric drugs.” The chair must have been aghast, but she kept her usual stern face.

At that point in time, in 1987, I had already been writing and lecturing extensively about brain damage from psychiatric drugs and was almost alone in this regard. A good introduction to this scientific work can be found in my book Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal (2013). Although issued by a medical publisher, it is suitable for the general public.

The Chair Issues a Final Opinion—and a Warning

Shortly after I finished my seminar, I’m guessing it took 20 minutes; the committee met alone to determine my fate, or as Ginger would say our fate. The committee returned, and the chair announced that they were going to recommend that no action be taken against me and that the case should be dropped. The chair warned us, “Do not go to the public with this information. No more media.” Ginger’s work with the media had obviously threatened them.

We were, of course, deeply relieved.

We went to a small room to debrief. It was now around 10:30 pm, and Ginger reminded us that the Baltimore Sun reporter was still waiting for us down the hall.

Our attorney gave us the advice he and several of his colleague had always been giving us. He firmly agreed with the chair, “Let’s not spoil it. No more media.”

Then came one of the greatest moments in my life — a story I love to tell. Without asking me, Ginger looked our attorney in the eye and announced, “Our freedom of speech ahead of our medical license.”

I still smile, remembering that moment. Was I resentful she called it “our medical license?” After all, we’d only been together about three years at that point in 1987, and I’d earned that license in 1962. No, I was delighted. I had a partner, a fierce partner, and I felt as secure as a man could be under the circumstances of being so attacked.

Ginger had the names and phone numbers of about a dozen reporters who were waiting up at this later hour to hear from us about the vetting by the medical society, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press. With no cell phones back then, Ginger also had also brought a bag of change to use at payphones. We gave an interview to the waiting reporter. Then we walked to a bank of phones in a nearby Baltimore hotel (we lived in Bethesda, Maryland) and began answering their interview questions. Ginger herself called Dan Goleman, who always preferred to talk with her — and we got a third story in the New York Times.

Way Beyond All Expectations

Events then unfolded beyond all expectations. The Board of Medicine dismissed the charges with no further examination. The licensure authorities were so eager to avoid a lawsuit that they declared that the attack had no validity, that it was a matter of free speech, and that they were “expunging” the record — removing all trace of the complaint. Their letter actually thanked me for my contributions to mental health in the State of Maryland. Then the chair of the commission gave an interview in a local newspaper where apologized to us for the unwarranted process we were put through.

Then a Complete Stranger Appeared in Our Lives

Several weeks later, we got a phone call from a stranger, an Israeli businessman who lives in the United States and had been away on a trip. He said he was very aware of our reform work, but did not give even a hint of why. He expressed disappointment at being away while we were being attacked. He was outraged at what had tried to do to us and what they had put us through. Without our asking for any help, he offered to give us $100,000 (in 1987 money!) to sue the instigators of the suit. I explained that I preferred not to be personally involved in lawsuits on my own behalf, but only as an expert for other people as part of my legal work.

Then the man asked, “What does it take to make you whole?” It took me a minute to grasp that he was asking how much money we had spent defending ourselves.

“Our lawyer fees were about $10,000,” I said, feeling awkward..

He called out to a woman nearby to him, whom we later learned was his wife and assistant. “Nina, write a check to Dr. Peter Breggin for $10,000” (again, in 1987 dollars).

Ginger and I wondered if it was a hoax until the check arrived a few days later. We were literally broke from doing reform work, and it was a precious gift. A practice of psychotherapy did not bring wealth, we spent considerable money on our reform efforts, and I was not yet doing much medical expert legal work. I would not start having a higher income until around 2000 from legal work.

More About the New California Law

Section 2a of AB 2098,6 states, It shall constitute unprofessional conduct for a physician and surgeon to disseminate misinformation or disinformation related to COVID-19, including false or misleading information regarding the nature and risks of the virus, its prevention and treatment; and the development, safety, and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

However, section 3 then limits the definition of “dissemination” to patient treatment and consultations: Disseminate” means the conveyance of information from the licensee to a patient under the licensee’s care in the form of treatment or advice. In the future, simply by eliminating this section 3, the law would automatically apply all of a physician’s activities without restriction to patient-physician relationships.

Ironically, the bill itself contains disastrous misinformation, such asThe safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines have been confirmed through evaluation by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the vaccines continue to undergo intensive safety monitoring by the CDC.”

Our Personal Conclusions

As my own experience with medical boards and medical societies indicates, including as a medical expert on behalf of others, the best defense is, to be honest, outspoken, and brave. This has been confirmed by Ginger’s unflinching defense of us whenever necessary by taking on the aggressor. We avoid personal conflicts and personal confrontations in our reform efforts. At the same time, we use every ethical and legal means to defend each person’s First Amendment right to address vital issues about society, government, and public policy.


4 Available on Amazon. The book was Edited by the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology, the organization I founded in 1972.


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