Drug Control Becomes Speech Control

A federal prosecutor tries to silence a pain treatment activist.

When the government accuses a doctor of running a "pill mill," prosecutors portray every aspect of his practice in a sinister light. Prescribing painkillers becomes drug trafficking, applying for insurance reimbursement becomes fraud, making bank deposits becomes money laundering, and working with people at the office becomes conspiracy.

When Siobhan Reynolds thinks a doctor has been unfairly targeted for such a prosecution, she tries to counter the official narrative by highlighting the patients he has helped and dramatizing the conflict between drug control and pain control. But now the government has turned its reinterpretive powers on Reynolds, portraying the pain treatment activist's advocacy as obstruction of justice and thereby threatening the freedom of anyone who dares to suggest there is more than one side to a criminal case.

In December 2007, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Wichita unveiled a 34-count indictment against Haysville, Kansas, physician Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, a nurse who worked in his clinic. It charged Schneider with "illegally distributing prescription drugs to his patients, directly causing the deaths of at least four of them."

Convinced the Schneiders were innocent, Reynolds and her group, the Pain Relief Network (PRN), publicly disputed the charges. In January 2008, PRN announced a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of using the federal Controlled Substances Act to regulate the practice of medicine, traditionally a state function. PRN also tried to stop the state medical board from suspending Schneider's license, arguing that doing so would harm his patients.

Although neither of those efforts succeeded in a court of law, they began to have an impact in the court of public opinion. Press coverage of the case went beyond perfunctory quotes from defense attorneys to include the perspectives of chronic pain patients who were grateful to Schneider for making their lives livable and anxious about their prospects of obtaining adequate treatment from doctors wary of legal trouble.

"He fought for me, and it is time now that I fight for him," a woman suffering from spinal deterioration told the Associated Press. "He doesn't deserve this. This is like a nightmare for me." Hundreds of patients signed a petition supporting Schneider, an effort launched under a hand-lettered sign reading "Don't Tread on Me Tanya."

The Tanya in question, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway, evidently was annoyed by the unusually balanced press coverage Reynolds helped arrange. In April 2008, Treadway took the extraordinary step of seeking a court order prohibiting Reynolds, who was neither a defendant nor a lawyer in the Schneiders' case, from talking about it. The prosecutor claimed Reynolds had "a sycophantic or parasitic relationship with the defendants," whom she was using "to further her own personal interests."          

Nine months after a federal judge rejected Treadway's attempt to gag Reynolds, the activist learned she was the subject of a grand jury investigation into possible obstruction of justice. Reynolds and PRN received subpoenas demanding their communications with dozens of people, including relatives of the Schneiders and members of their defense team. Tellingly, the material sought includes correspondence related to a PRN-commissioned billboard in Wichita proclaiming "Dr. Schneider never killed anyone."

Scott Michelman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing Reynolds, says the interest in the billboard "confirms that this so-called investigation is about Siobhan Reynolds' speech....The most plausible explanation here is that the prosecutor is trying to shut Siobhan up."

Last week a federal judge rejected Reynolds' motion to quash the subpoenas on First Amendment grounds and imposed $200-a-day fines on her and PRN for refusing to comply. Reynolds plans to appeal. "This is a direct attempt to intimidate me and silence me," she told A.P.

Another item sought by the grand jury is a PRN documentary that discusses how the war on drugs affects pain treatment, a video Michelman calls "completely innocuous from a criminal perspective" and "absolutely protected speech." Its title, especially apt in light of Treadway's vindictive campaign against Reynolds, is The Chilling Effect.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2009 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • @||

    [T]he government has turned its reinterpretive powers on Reynolds, portraying the pain treatment activist's advocacy as obstruction of justice and thereby threatening the freedom of anyone who dares to suggest there is more than one side to a criminal case.

    Thanks for not saying, "There are two sides to everything." That cliche dominates the cultural dialogue, wherein everything is black or white, red or blue, liberal or conservative. It has all but paralyzed rational, objective, public debate in our nation and turned every important issue into a childish squabble amongst partisans.

  • Tricky Prickears||

    There's no doubt in my mind that this is just another strong arm attempt by the prosecution to silence Ms. Reynolds. But if a judge says you have to turn over potential evidence, unless there's some sort of privilege attached to it, you had better comply, or be prepared to have your diet modified to bologna sandwiches.

    What's really behind all of this bullshit? I have a feeling somewhere behind the scenes there's a "concerned mother", with some political connections and deep pockets.

  • meeko||

    Seems like Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway took it too personally...
    In usual circumstances, i'd say bad for her,
    but in this case, well, its possible that PRN and Siobhan Reynolds are on the wrong end of law suit

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    In April 2008, [U.S. Attorney Tanya] Treadway took the extraordinary step of seeking a court order prohibiting Reynolds, who was neither a defendant nor a lawyer in the Schneiders' case, from talking about it.



    A tacit admission that her position is indefensibly weak.

  • Fluffy||

    Can Jacob or Radley or somebody entertain me by laying out Treadway's stated justification for this proposed indictment?

    I can't find it anywhere. I'm sure it's laughable, but I'd like to know what it is.

  • Anomalous||

    Fuck Tanya Treadway with a chainsaw.

  • ||

    I thought the Obama administration would be better than Bush the Lesser's when it came to the War on Drugs Sick People.

    I really did.

    Ask me why I'm a cynic.

  • T||

    Ask me why I'm a cynic.

    Umm, does it have anything to do with watching the Detroit city government all these years, J sub?

  • ||

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

  • medic001||

    Well considering that vicodin is now one of the most abused drugs by teenagers..it must be for " the kiddies" But I don't see how that the Doctor's problem.

    If you as a parent can't keep Timmy out of your medicine cabinet and popping your happy pills...how is that MY fault? Or that of the clinics?


    As for the Pain Doctor's, couldn't pay me to be in their shoes.

    They are beat on, and chased down by the DEA ALL the time for doing their damn jobs.

    Pain is contextual.

    My hang nail may not hurt me, but could be the worse px in the world to another.

    - medic001

  • ||

    I thought the Obama administration was supposed to STOP this type of abuse of authority by federal prosecutors. My God, is G. W. still running the Department of Justice (or Injustice???)?

  • ||

    Here's wishing a load of pain on Treadway, and a bottle of baby aspirins.

  • ||

    I had surgery to reconnect a ruptured tendon and the doctor tried to give me Panadol. I complained about being given headache medicine, and another doctor gave me time-release morphine sulfate. I chewed those babies up.

  • ||

    I think this is disingenuous. Do some doctors over prescribe? Well let's all ask Michael Jackson. Oops he's dead of a prescription drug overdose. I've been shot and been in a car accident (I wasn't driving). Sometimes it seemed like the cure was worse than the problem. I know that government control is the worst option but it is better than all the alternatives.

  • anonymous||

    "Well let's all ask Michael Jackson. Oops he's dead of a prescription drug overdose."

    Note the billboard.

  • ||

    What's wrong with this picture?

    Who practices medicine? Doctors, nurses etc., or DA's, cops, and judges?

    Addiction is de facto 'treated' by law enforcement as they call the shots as to what is or isn't acceptable.

    How'd you like to be second guessed by a cop when you're an architect or accountant?

  • Ratdog||

    "I think this is disingenuous. Do some doctors over prescribe? Well let's all ask Michael Jackson."

    Since we can't ask Jackson, perhaps we may consider statements by his family and those close to him before jumping to conclusions.

    Example: "Michael Jackson's former wife Lisa Marie Presley said on Friday the pop star was a tortured soul who once predicted that he would "end up" like her father, the late rock icon Elvis Presley." http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE55P5TS20090626

    Don't get me wrong, sir, I feel your pain, I really do.

    Like yourself I was a follower in a personality cult, and I assure you when that skank Courtney Love rammed that shotgun in our beloved Kurt's mouth and blew his brains out we knew better than accept it as a suicide just because he was all mentally screwed up and suicidal, that's bull, I knew him too well to buy that crap, even though I actually never met him, but I did see him once, or thought I did, and bought his CDs, so I know I knew him personally very well.

    Sadly, Kurt was the only messiah for me, so I was never a follower in Jackson's cult, making it very difficult for me to accept that anyone but Jackson himself was responsible for his own death as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • ||

    where can we contribute to Ms Reynolds defense fund? That information should be in every Reason article about such government legal overreach. Instead of posting inanities, we could send some financial help to these folks.

  • Sally O'Boyle||

    Wow. Just when I think nothing else can make me sit open-mouthed while I read... along comes the next level. And I've been to tax court which is stunning in its bias.

  • abercrombie milano||

    where can we contribute to Ms Reynolds defense fund? That information should be in every Reason article about such government legal overreach. Instead of posting inanities, we could send some financial help to these folks.
    reply to this

  • nike shox||

    is good

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