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Citizen comments violated 'medical misinformation policy,' YouTube says

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners learned on Friday that there was little they could do in response to YouTube's decision to remove its meeting because of citizens' anti-vaccination comments.

YouTube declined to reverse its decision when County Attorney Russ Burrell wrote to appeal the removal of the video, which included 40 minutes of public comment, mostly from people strongly opposed to the Covid-19 vaccine.

"In our appeal Mr. Burrell stated that by blocking some of the content it blocked all of the content, which made it impossible for our citizens to hear any of our meeting," Commissioner Rebecca McCall said.

In its response to the county attorney, YouTube wrote: "We have reviewed the content carefully and have confirmed that it violates our medical misinformation policy. We know this is probably disappointing news but it's our job to make sure that YouTube is a safe place for all."

"What concerns me is they are choosing what medical information is valid," McCall said. "Yes, the information shared was from citizens who had done research but wasn't validated, I do admit. If we had had a medical doctor stand up there and state that he did not agree with the vaccination for children or pregnant women or for whoever and list the reasons why, with medical backing, they would have taken it down also. This is censorship. Yes, it's a private company but it's censorship and a lot of people use this private company and it scares me because they're deciding what information is shared."

Commissioner Michael Edney noted that the state Supreme Court had only recently upheld the right of citizens to make critical remarks in a zoning hearing. “In a political process meant to address public concerns," Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote, "a commitment to ‘free and open debate’ means other parties are free to counter selfish or misleading speech with speech of their own.”

"It doesn't really matter what they say," Edney said. "The content is irrelevant because it's a public open forum for free and open debate. You don't shut the door, you don't turn it off, you don't unplug it. You counter what you believe to be bad speech with good speech ... and our folks are being denied that right." YouTube was using its power "to quell speech that they disagree with," he added. "We're not telling people what to do, we're telling people to educate themselves. Why can't YouTube do the same thing?"

"We the commissioners are here to do the people's business," Commissioner Daniel Andreotta said, "and we do it in front of the people. That's how it should be done. Just imagine if we had decided on our own volition that we were going to hold that meeting in secret."

County Manager Steve Wyatt, who has only 12 more days in the job, told commissioners he was proud of them.

"If you chose to roll over then I would say I didn't know you," he said. "I really appreciate you standing up for the people you represent."

Commissioners faced a choice to "do nothing and be criticized," Bill Ramsey said, or "to take action and be criticized. I've been standing back hoping all this would go away and taking a step back each time. I've run out of room. I feel that our backs are to the wall. My vote, if I had one, would be to take some sensible action in response to this outrageous act by YouTube."

After a 30-minute discussion, commissioners voted unanimously to discontinue using YouTube to air their meetings and directed staff to look at other options. Commissioners also asked staff to direct county public school administrators to look into dumping YouTube and its owner, Google, which has a widely used education platform.