Mar 18 2014

Australian Anti-Vaccination Group Loses Charity Status

The group previously known as the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) has been getting a lot of heat recently, in large part thanks to the Australian Skeptics who have been exposing their dangerous misinformation. The AVN is an anti-vaccination group that actively campaigns against vaccination. They are (or at least were until recently) also a registered charity, which means they can take tax-deductible donations.

The Australian Skeptics pointed out that the name of the AVN is misleading, as it might make the public think they are giving fair and balanced information about vaccines. In reality the information they dispense amounts to anti-vaccine propaganda.

Recently the New South Wales Department of Fair Trading ruled that the AVN is a misleading name, and ordered the group to change their name. That’s the good new. The bad news is that they decided to change their name to the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network.

While this may have satisfied the letter of the order, I have to wonder if this was a deliberate dig at the Australian Skeptics. It is very unfortunate when denialist groups co-opt the name “skeptic.” It just further confuses the skeptic brand. Denialism is as far away from scientific skepticism as is gullible belief.

Of course deniers always think they are the true skeptics, just as true-believers think that skeptics are deniers. People tend to calibrate their denier->skeptic->believer scales to themselves. Therefore anyone more accepting of a particular claim than you is a believer, and less accepting is a denier.

In reality, scientific skepticism is a process that involves critical thinking skills and knowledge of philosophy and scientific methodology.It’s just a matter of accepting or rejecting a specific claim, it’s about the process.

The AVSN, formerly AVN, are not skeptics. They have an anti-vaccine ideological agenda and promote pseudoscience and misinformation. They are as far away from true skeptics as you can get.

One potentially good bit of follow up news is that the AVSN has now been ordered to surrender its charitable fundraising:

Now New South Wales Fair Trading Minister Stuart Ayres has taken further action.

“We have requested that it surrender its authority to fundraise, which it has done, under the Charitable Fundraising Act,” he said.

I can see that some may find it troubling that the government can decide what information is acceptable, and remove charity status (what would be called non-profit status in the US) for speech it deems unacceptable. However, in this situation we are dealing with medical information (not political advocacy).

No group has a right to charitable status. It makes sense that such a privilege should come with a responsibility to demonstrate a public good. In this case, it can be clearly shown that the AVSN is a public menace, threatening public health with dangerous misinformation. It would be perverse, in fact, for such a group to benefit from any government subsidy or support.

I don’t know what the future holds for the AVSN, but I am glad that regulators are taking complaints about such groups seriously. I am a strong supporter of free speech, and would tread very cautiously on any government regulation of speech. The AVSN, in fact, is free to spread their misinformation and propaganda.

But they should not carry the slightest imprimatur of government legitimacy. I also think its reasonable to criticize them for what is essentially false advertising, potentially misleading the public about their true cause.

Politicians are experts in such things. Just look at the titles of proposed bills compared to what they actually contain.

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31 responses so far

31 Responses to “Australian Anti-Vaccination Group Loses Charity Status”

  1. TheFlyingPigon 18 Mar 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Why don’t they just change their name to the Anti-Vaccination Network? Then they wouldn’t even have to change their acronym and their name would no longer be deceptive.

    Of course, if their name were no longer deceptive, they wouldn’t be able to get as many donations from well-meaning people who didn’t look into the organization and thought they were donating to help provide vaccines to people. Is there any other reason for the deceptive name?

    It would be like atheists forming an organization called the Christian Ministries Network and soliciting donations from Christians. Even if the website states that we’re actually fighting against the spread of Christianity, I bet we’d get plenty of donations from naive Christians.

    Picking a misleading name to get money from people is fraud. Free speech does not extend to fraud.

  2. carbonUniton 18 Mar 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Too bad the same fate can’t befall the US based National Vaccine Information Network, http://donotlink.com/nvic.org. (The site is down as I post this.) Not only are they a 501(c)(3?) charity, but they have a Combined Federal Campaign number which makes it easy for federal employees to contribute through payroll deductions.

    Worse, for some bizarre reason, they are aided and abetted by their local United Way branch, the United Way of the National Capital Area. http://donotlink.com/www.unitedwaynca.org/pages/charity/national-vaccine-information-center There is no “freedom of speech” issue here, the UWNCA is not the government. They have the choice of what organizations they accept as affiliates and it is amazing that they accept one which is anti-health. UWNCA deserves the #ASKJENNY treatment. http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2014/03/17/jenny_mccarthy_antivaxxer_gets_remedied_on_twitter.html

    Note that “bad” links here are prefixed with donotlink.com to prevent them from scoring higher in search engines and Facebook.

  3. Jim Shaveron 18 Mar 2014 at 4:00 pm

    Steve:

    I appreciate you reporting this important information. I believe there’s one typo you might want to fix, in your sixth paragraph.

    It’s just a matter of accepting or rejecting a specific claim, it’s about the process.

    I think it should say, “It’s not just a matter of accepting or rejecting a specific claim; it’s about the process.”

    Thanks.

  4. Scepticonon 18 Mar 2014 at 4:02 pm

    I am not familiar with requirements of charities in Australia but I help get the charitable status revoked of the New Zealand version of the AVN, the Immunisation Awareness Society (IAS) – since renamed to WAVESnz.

    Here there are pretty strict rules about who can/cannot be a charity and what activities they can undertake. Most of these organisations set themselves up as “educational” but simply publishing a website does not qualify you to be an educational charity.

    Further if one of your primary purposes is to advance a particular position with an eye to changing public policy you cannot be a charity.

    Thus, our anti-vax charity was not de-registered in the official decision because they provided false and misleading information (the thrust of my complaint against them) but because they did not fit the definition of a charity.

    The rules look slightly different for Australia where it look like you need a fund-raising permit type authority in order to conduct fund-raising appeals. This may mean (as in NZ) that while they may not solicit funds as a charity, they can still accept donations. So I would believe them when they say it doesn’t make a difference to them.

    To anti-vax charity in NZ that was de-registered may still call itself a “Charitable organisation” and accept donations, they just can’t take advantage of tax exemptions. So while this can feel like a win, it really isn’t. Unfortunately.

  5. BillyJoe7on 18 Mar 2014 at 5:03 pm

    My local chiropractor still has a link to the AVN on her website:

    http://www.mooroolbarkchiro.com.au/index.php/links -> http://avn.org.au

  6. csbrownon 18 Mar 2014 at 5:39 pm

    On the smaller point of the appropriation of the term “skeptic,” I’m afraid that the battle is already largely lost to the anti-science denialist crowd. Skeptic now connotes anyone who doubts consensus view and its use as in climate skeptic, vaccination skeptic and even religious skeptic, at least in the US, seems to support this meaning. This usage is fully entrenched in the media and seams impossible to uproot especially given the low visibility of scientific skepticism to the general public. I’ve heard you discuss this on the SGU and don’t expect you to rehash it here, especially since this isn’t the point of this post, but I just wish the *scientific* skeptic movement could come up with a better “brand” (gag) than “skeptic.”

  7. Will Nitschkeon 18 Mar 2014 at 8:35 pm

    @ Steven Novella

    Groups such as yours have long since ruined the meanings of the words “skeptic”, “denier”, “consensus” (did it ever have a sensible meaning?) and so on. Little point in complaining now about what other words other groups have co-opted. (Not that many of the ideas you have promoted are not without value. Such as calling out anti-vaccinations groups, and other groups indulging in medical mischief.) On the other hand, it’s not entirely without merit to point out that the SGU should more appropriately name itself the “Establishment Science Cheerleading and Apologist Squad”. Assuming of course you didn’t assign yourself special status among advocacy groups. ;-)

  8. Bill Openthalton 18 Mar 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Will Nitschke –

    Will we ever see you with your sunny side up? ;)

  9. tmac57on 18 Mar 2014 at 8:47 pm

    csbrown- No way should the Skeptic community cave in to the attempted co-opting of the term ‘skeptic’ and abandon it. We have built this identity over a forty year period at least,and we should stand and fight to keep it’s original meaning. That’s my vote.

  10. Alex Simmonson 18 Mar 2014 at 10:25 pm

    AVSN are free to continue and operate as a non-profit organisation. They government is not preventing free speech. They are just not entitled tax free status as a registered charity (which has special meaning under Australian law and tax law).

    http://www.ato.gov.au/Non-profit/Endorsement/Registered-charities/

    To attain TFS, you must first be registered charity, and the requirements for that are here:
    http://www.acnc.gov.au/ACNC/Register_my_charity/Who_can_register/ACNC/Reg/Who_can_register.aspx?hkey=2d466857-a591-418c-bbf7-8c247b73248b

    perhaps the Australian Skeptics could set up the “Australian Vaccine Information Network” to promote real information of health benefit, public good, education etc, and legitimately have it registered as having charity status under our tax law:
    http://www.acnc.gov.au/ACNC/Pblctns/Factsheets/FS_HPC/ACNC/FTS/Fact_HPC.aspx

  11. Davdoodleson 19 Mar 2014 at 1:54 am

    “I have to wonder if [using "Skeptics in their new name] was a deliberate dig at the Australian Skeptics.”

    I’ve no doubt about it. Meryl Dorey and her grotesque acolytes really are that pathetic.

    I’ve also no doubt the Aussie Skeptics will wear it as a badge of honour.

    And kudos to the Aussie skeptics for patiently mustering the dangerous anti-childrens’-health cranks out to the loony fringe of polite society, and holding them there.
    .

  12. grabulaon 19 Mar 2014 at 4:15 am

    Ah yes, the Will Nitschke monster rears it’s ugly head, this time throwing specific punches with generalized claims.

    “Groups such as yours have long since ruined the meanings of the words “skeptic”, “denier”, “consensus” (did it ever have a sensible meaning?) and so on.”

    Which group is that again? Groups of people requiring scientific evidence, falsifiable theories, and a methodology that claims no stance except to find the evidence? Groups of people who call out those misappropriating words in order to sow confusion and doubt, a very specific and conscious goal anyone even partially sane would find repulsive?

    “(Not that many of the ideas you have promoted are not without value. Such as calling out anti-vaccinations groups, and other groups indulging in medical mischief.)”

    Don’t start to backtrack now Will! You’re blind hatred at evidence and those who present it has kept you warm at night.

    “On the other hand, it’s not entirely without merit to point out that the SGU should more appropriately name itself the “Establishment Science Cheerleading and Apologist Squad”. Assuming of course you didn’t assign yourself special status among advocacy groups.”

    Aaaaah, there he is, our favorite negative nancy. I like the “establishment science” part myself, really reveals your paranoid and fringe perception of reality. how many times have you been abducted by aliens Will?

  13. Bruceon 19 Mar 2014 at 4:56 am

    I find it funny how he has abandoned his thin veneer of even having a valid opinion now and is just wildly flailing like a drunk leprechaun who lost his pot of gold.

    Strains of Cyndi Lauper ghosting through the PC sound card at me…

  14. grabulaon 19 Mar 2014 at 7:04 am

    right, I think he realizes we’re on to his trolling. Now he’s just logging on drunk to entertain himself.

  15. SteveAon 19 Mar 2014 at 8:39 am

    Bruce: “wildly flailing like a drunk leprechaun who lost his pot of gold”.

    There ought to be an Oscar for similes…

  16. tmac57on 19 Mar 2014 at 10:54 am

    Hey Will! If all you want is a little attention,why don’t you just roll over,and we can all give you a hearty belly rub? Works for my two dogs :)

    No need for all of this barking and growling.

  17. kushamion 19 Mar 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Well, I didn’t know they had charity status, but I’m sure glad it was taken away. When I think of how my family was affected by polio for instance – my grandma was crippled in the 50s epidemic – and how she and my grandpa often needed to rely on charitable organisations for help … Speechless, really.

    If I was in charge of Australia, I’d fine them every cent they have and donate it to help children with polio in India. Thankfully new cases are reported at zero there, but there are still children living with disabilities caused by it.

  18. zorrobanditoon 19 Mar 2014 at 12:45 pm

    I am not familiar with Australian law.

    In the United States all sorts of organizations have charitable status, including many I violently disagree with and who are pushing all sorts of demonstrable falsehoods. I have worked professionally to qualify many organizations for charitable status, and the standards for what qualifies as “educational” are extremely vague, and for good reason. The tax authorities are far more interested in inquiring into where exactly the money is going (to the alleged cause? or to some private individual?) than they are in the dangerous and iffy territory of what is and is not true or defensible or whatever.

    Having the government decide what is and is not “falsehood” is a remedy worse than the disease.

    Skeptics who are unhappy with this conclusion should think long and hard about countries which are run by, say, Islam, and where information contrary to the government’s views are suppressed.

  19. ccbowerson 19 Mar 2014 at 1:05 pm

    And Will chimes in to demonstrate another way that the term skepticism is misunderstood, as he continues to confuse skepticism with cynicism.

  20. BillyJoe7on 19 Mar 2014 at 4:34 pm

    zorrobandito,

    “Having the government decide what is and is not “falsehood” is a remedy worse than the disease”

    The remedy is to have governments that make decisions based on the evidence.
    Otherwise, what are you proposing?

    “Skeptics who are unhappy with this conclusion should think long and hard about countries which are run by, say, Islam, and where information contrary to the government’s views are suppressed”

    Islamic law is based on faith and relevation, so that’s hardly relevant.
    Also the Austalian government is not supressing information so, again, that’s hardly relevant.

  21. Skeptiverseon 19 Mar 2014 at 5:43 pm

    As a few comments allude to above, the reason why the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (Yes this is the Gov office that deals with charities), and the NSW Office of Fair Trading, strongly suggested that the AVSN surrender their charitable status was because the AVSN does not meet any of the approved “Charitable Purposes” outlined in the act.


    Recognised charitable purposes

    ‘Charitable purpose’ has a special legal meaning, developed over years by courts and parliament. The courts have recognised many different charitable purposes, and as society changes new charitable purposes are accepted.

    The Charities Act 2013 (Cth) lists twelve charitable purposes:

    advancing health
    advancing education
    advancing social or public welfare
    advancing religion
    advancing culture
    promoting reconciliation, mutual respect and tolerance between groups of individuals that are in Australia
    promoting or protecting human rights
    advancing the security or safety of Australia or the Australian public
    preventing or relieving the suffering of animals
    advancing the natural environment
    promoting or opposing a change to any matter established by law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a state, a territory or another country, and
    other similar purposes ‘beneficial to the general public’ (a general category).

    It has nothing to do with the government not agreeing with their views.

    Additionally, the suggestion by Greg Beattie that removal of their charitable status wont hurt them is fanciful. AFAIK Charitable status is the first step required to get tax deductible status, and many people are wary of donating to organisations when their donations are not tax deductible.

  22. zorrobanditoon 19 Mar 2014 at 6:33 pm

    BillyJoe,

    I’m suggesting that short of outright fraud the government should stay out of figuring out what is true enough to deserve being promulgated.

    It’s like religion. Of course you would like your particular brand of fact determination to prevail. (“evidence based”) This is also true however of religionists of various sorts, who would prefer determination of the truth by reference to some holy book or other. In other words, you’d like to win the battle and have the government impose your views, which you think are correct. However, everyone else thinks they are correct too!

    As attractive as your idea is to me personally, we have to consider the possibility that in a democracy we would lose, and that only Islamic or New Age or Christian or anti-vac or other woo-woo views of the facts would be blessed by the government, and the rest of us penalized.

    Let the government tread lightly here. Having some few whack-jobs get tax exemptions for mis-education is a small price for our assured freedom to put out our views as well.

    Or at least that has always been the American view. So far it has served us very well.

  23. zorrobanditoon 19 Mar 2014 at 6:41 pm

    Australia of course is not the US. As I say I know nothing of their legal system. Perhaps a more restrictive view works for them.

  24. Alex Simmonson 19 Mar 2014 at 6:58 pm

    As an Australian, I want decisions on the allocations of my tax dollars or an exemption from paying tax to be based on sound evidence about public good, and not based on nonsense*.

    To that end, we have sensible guidelines for what constitutes a charity worthy of tax free status. Dangerous anti-health outfits need not apply. The evidence is clear and overwhelming they are working *against* the public good.

    But removing tax free status is a long way from preventing their existence. No one is preventing them from existing and spruiking their nonsense. All that has happened is their tax free status has been removed.

    * of course in reality many decisions are politically based, but that does not mean we should not pursue an evidence based approach as much as is feasibly attainable. The ideal is to align political outcomes with those based on evidence.

  25. zorrobanditoon 19 Mar 2014 at 7:16 pm

    @ Alex all cheers for Australians. It’s a lovely place I hear.

    We do things differently here.

  26. grabulaon 20 Mar 2014 at 5:05 am

    @zorrbandito

    “Let the government tread lightly here. Having some few whack-jobs get tax exemptions for mis-education is a small price for our assured freedom to put out our views as well. ”

    “Having some few whack-jobs get tax exemptions for mis-education is a small price for our assured freedom to put out our views as well. ”

    You can’t have it both ways. It’s ok for the government to hand out the charitable organization stamp yet you don’t want them to hinder organizations looking for tax exemptions through charitable status? You’re not making any sense.

    I will address the strawman you’ve built. We’re only insisting that if the government is going to hand out tax exemptions to organizations that it also practice due diligence in determining whether you deserve a tax exemption. In the above example, we know rationally and scientifically that not vaccinating children is a health risk, so why would we allow an organization pushing a dangerous agenda to get a tax exemption? The difference between this agenda and say that of the church is that we can scientifically demonstrate it’s dangerous, so there’s no grey area in deciding if it’s right or wrong.

  27. BillyJoe7on 20 Mar 2014 at 7:54 am

    zorrobandito,

    “I’m suggesting that short of outright fraud the government should stay out of figuring out what is true enough to deserve being promulgated”

    Well, we disagree.
    If governments make decisions based on the facts, I have no problem at all.

    “It’s like religion. Of course you would like your particular brand of fact determination to prevail. (“evidence based”) This is also true however of religionists of various sorts, who would prefer determination of the truth by reference to some holy book or other”

    But now it’s not a matter of opinion because you are demonstrably wrong.
    Facts don’t come in “brands”.
    Facts are, by definition, evidence based.
    Faith is based on non evidence based dogma and revelation.

    “In other words, you’d like to win the battle and have the government impose your views, which you think are correct. However, everyone else thinks they are correct too!”

    Not my views. Not anyone else’s view.
    Just the scientifically derived facts are what should guide what actions governments take.

    “As attractive as your idea is to me personally, we have to consider the possibility that in a democracy we would lose, and that only Islamic or New Age or Christian or anti-vac or other woo-woo views of the facts would be blessed by the government, and the rest of us penalized”

    If we support governments that make decisions based on the scientifically derived facts, non-evidence based pseudoscientific and religious opinions will have less and less traction. We must support governments that are prepared to remove tax exemptions from organisations that spread non evidence based propaganda.

    “Let the government tread lightly here. Having some few whack-jobs get tax exemptions for mis-education is a small price for our assured freedom to put out our views as well.”

    I couldn’t disagree more.
    Governments have no business providing tax money to spread baseless propaganda.

    “Or at least that has always been the American view. So far it has served us very well”.

    Not sure if that is correct:

    The ten commandments and large crosses on public land.
    “In God we trust” on the currency.
    Presidents invoking prayer at every opportunity.
    Prayers at the opening of parliament.
    Laws agaisnt stem cell research.
    Laws excluding amd sex marriage.

    Alternative medicine in universities, medical schools, medical centres, and for CME activities.

  28. tmac57on 20 Mar 2014 at 10:37 am

    zorrobandito- With you laissez faire attitude, any organization pushing any ‘information’ about their ideas,no matter how false,abhorrent,or dangerous should be able to obtain a charitable exemption no questions asked by the government,unless they overtly are breaking an existing law.
    I see a problem with that.Call me crazy.

  29. Steven Novellaon 20 Mar 2014 at 11:25 am

    Zorro – also keep in mind that the government cannot refrain entirely from making decisions based upon what is scientifically valid.

    The government has to decide what to teach in public schools. Specifically – what is taught as science in science class. This is based upon the current scientific consensus about what is science, broadly construed. The government won’t pay for anyone to teach their wacko theories in a public school science classroom (or at least they shouldn’t).

    The government also has a process to determine what research to fund with public money.

    This is not a freedom of speech issue. This is about the government having due diligence in determining what activities are valid to fund with public money, which includes subsidies and tax breaks.

  30. Chiliwillyon 21 Mar 2014 at 6:58 am

    “It’s just a matter of accepting or rejecting a specific claim, it’s about the process.”

    Should this read “It’s NOT just a matter of accepting or rejecting…”?

    Great post, thanks Steve!

  31. jessiessicaon 25 Mar 2014 at 4:36 am

    Hi Steve, I just want to point out that the group that is overwhelmingly responsible for the various skeptical wins against AVSN is the Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network. Sure there is some overlap with the Australian Skeptics, but the SAVN admins have worked incredibly hard and put in long hours for years, doing far more than any other independent group to make this happen. Credit where credit is due.

    Interesting that the AVSN have *still* not changed their Facebook page name despite this being their main avenue of communication with their members and the public.

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