April 27, 2006

Why is the Free Speech Online campaign important? 

By Julie Catalano, Founder, vetabusenetwork.com

Because with regard to addressing veterinary malpractice, incompetence, and negligence, the Internet is about all we have left. Historically, veterinarians enjoy the perks and privileges of systems that consistently fall short of protecting consumers and their pets. How does this happen? 

The board systemFor generations, vets have successfully dodged accountability at the state board level, using backdoor dealings, cronyism, and a self-policing process that stacks the deck against victims when they file complaints. It is at best ineffective and at worst, a travesty that can put public safety in jeopardy. 

Few pet owners/guardians stand a chance against the secrecy and arrogance of a system that is literally funded by the vets themselves, as is the case in Texas and elsewhere. 

  The legal system.  Civil courts can be even worse. Pets have little value or protection under the law, and once again, vets can handily exploit a system when it suits them -- but not one moment before. 

Here's how it works: Your pet is a valued family member, the medical patient of a medical professional -- a doctor who makes his or her living treating animals. Until that same medical professional harms or kills your pet, that is. 

Now sit back and watch your beloved, valued companion turn into a virtually worthless piece of property (unless Fluffy is a Longhorn steer). Thanks to old, outdated laws, your family member went from patient to property before you knew what hit you, or them.

  Meanwhile, the doctor undergoes a similar metamorphosis, but with a much happier ending. He transforms from multi-degreed medical professional into a mechanic who -- oops! -- broke something he was working on, something that turns out isn't all that valuable after all -- legally. And then enjoys almost guaranteed protection and freedom from accountability for the damage -- legally.  

As others have noted, it is a profession that has it both ways. And it's a pretty safe bet that many vets like it that way.

So where does a pet guardian go? 

If some vets had their say, nowhere. Having essentially hidden behind the two main systems that should be protecting the victims and not the vets, some veterinarians think they're entitled to police the Internet -- a disturbing, ugly, and dangerous trend that has ramifications for everyone. 

Consumers who use cyberspace to share experiences, facts, and opinions about vets may one day find that avenue closed off as rich, well-connected, influential doctors use their clout against anyone who speaks out, knowing that most victims do not have the legal or financial resources to fight them. 

Worse, some vets unconscionably exploit their own noble profession, confident that they can hide inside an almost universally respected, well-liked, and trusted public image that will distract the public from what is really going on. Sort of like practiced, friendly salespeople who point out the bells and whistles of a used car while hoping you won't notice that the engine is hanging by a thread. And veterinarians are unconditionally trusted infinitely more often than your average salesperson. 

The very worst use their own colleagues to help to bail them out; unfortunately, some of those colleagues are more than happy to. Who knows? They may need bailing out themselves one day. Protect me now, and I'll protect you later. 

Happily, I believe that most veterinarians, like most people, behave ethically. The ones whose actions prove they do not, make it difficult for everybody -- their colleagues and the public alike. A few brave veterinarians do step up about the serious problems within the profession, but not nearly enough. 

That leaves only us, the public, to speak out. And that's making some vets very unhappy. Let's face it: life had to be easier when victims were isolated and alone, left with dead pets and wondering what went wrong, unable to compare notes about their vet's conduct and practices, unable to easily check on disciplinary records, unable to read victims' stories of their experiences, unable to communicate with people who have been through the same tragedy. Veterinary victims were clueless, trusting, and unable to do anything about a self-regulated profession that enjoys widespread protection from any meaningful accountability. 

Unable to do anything, that is, except believe what their friendly neighborhood vet tells them "really" happened to their pet. And even if they don't entirely believe him or her, if they sense that they are not getting the whole story, where could they go to tell of their experience? The aforementioned "nowhere." 

The Internet changed everything. And some vets--the worst, richest, and most bullying of all of them--are striking back. 

What does this mean to you?

It means that in addition to being at risk of having our pets, our money, our choices, and our trust stolen, veterinarians are setting their sights on abducting our voices. 

It means that vets and their professional organizations are more likely to work toward preserving their freedoms -- one of which would be the freedom to work behind closed doors without fear of accountability from any corner. You say it can't happen? Do you think the board system policies and the laws regarding animals got -- and stayed -- the way they are by accident? 

It means that the Internet could become a place where some vets might very well try to determine what can and cannot be written about them. If they don't want their actions as doctors and licensees of the state in positions of public trust and public safety exposed -- then web site owners, citizen journalists, posters, bloggers, and the average pet parent wanting to tell their stories better watch out. Vets can circle the community wagons to cloak themselves in self-aggrandizement; ridicule and intimidate veterinarians of conscience trying to help victims; and of course rely on that old standby that works up their faithful followers into a frenzy of loyalty  --  convincing people that the vets are the "real" victims. 

It means, in short, that you may have to shut up if a veterinarian wants you to. 

They have the board system covered. They have the legal system covered. If they manage to succeed at policing the Internet, it's three strikes and we're out. And so are our pets.  

What can you do?   

There are exceptions, but as a whole, veterinarians are generally a well-funded, organized, and formidable political force, despite a warm and fuzzy image that often lulls us into thinking otherwise. One minute they're cooing baby talk to your puppy-dog or kitty-cat. The next thing you know, they're scrambling for ways to squash the constitution. Go figure. 

Veterinarians policing the Internet and controlling our speech is, of course, a worst-case, hypothetical scenario, but nightmares can come true. Ideally, we should be able to tell our stories without fear, but sadly, that is not always the case if vets decide to avail themselves of the legal system to attempt to shut us down. Defending yourself against a determined, arrogant, bully vet with aggressive, unconscionable lawyers is a nightmare that robs us of our time, money, energy, health, jobs, relationships and more. 

If you have a website, if you post on a forum, if you tell your story anywhere on the Internet, please copy and paste the Free Speech Online logo as a reminder to those who may not know: freedom of speech is still alive, unlike many victims of veterinary malpractice, incompetence, and negligence. 

It's time pet guardians started protecting themselves and one another, and the Internet gives us a chance to do that. Even if our pets do get lost in the shuffle of self-serving board systems and archaic laws, we can still stand up and speak out for what we believe in. We can protect each other and our pets with information, education, and awareness, but only if our basic rights to do so remain that -- protected. 

See the Stop Internet Censorship logo in the upper right hand corner and click the link to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to get your own logo for your web site or blog.

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