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Does the Goldwater Rule Restrict Free Speech Too Much?

Should there be a Dangerous Leader rule?

Shortly after Iraq's armed forces invaded Kuwait on August 2nd of 2000, Dr. Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist with extensive experience in the analysis of political leaders, was invited to testify before the House Armed Services Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee concerning the character of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's leader,

Saddam Hussein had political reasons for ordering the invasion, but it is also likely that psychological issues contributed to his decision to invade his oil-rich neighbor. As the United States and its allies considered military action to liberate Kuwait, congressional leaders and others investigated the Iraqi leader's motivations and mental status, in an attempt to develop a psychological understanding of his actions.

Many regarded Dr. Post's highly informative testimony as serving a key public need at the time. Post discouraged any misapprehension of Hussein as an inexplicable madman, and instead portrayed the leader as an effective, pragmatic and potentially very dangerous adversary. Dr. Post's testimony represented a "contribution of the highest order" to the government and people of the United States, according to the US Institute for Peace.

Officials of the American Psychiatric Association, however, were less than happy with Dr. Post's testimony. Since 1970, the Association's "Goldwater Rule" had prohibited psychiatrists from speaking to the media about the mental health of individual public figures. The Goldwater rule had been added to the American Psychiatric Association's Ethics code after Fact magazine (now defunct) had conducted a poll of psychiatrists about the mental health of Senator Barry Goldwater and had published an often disparaging view of the Senator's personality. Goldwater sued the magazine and won $75,000.

Shortly after Dr. Post testified, he received a call from the chair of an Association subgroup, advising him that some members had complained that he had violated the Goldwater rule when commenting on the Iraqi President's character. Dr. Post, who was proud of his public service, was taken aback by the complaints.

Today, the Goldwater rule remains on the minds of psychiatrists who speak to the media. Shortly after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, an editorial piece in the Psychiatric News reminded psychiatrists about the rule, contending that those who used such terms as "psychotic," "delusional," and "paranoid," to describe the killer had been reckless in their assertions.

Perhaps rethinking their editorial, Mike Moran, a senior staff writer at Psychiatric News, later reported that a working group was attempting a revision of the Goldwater Rule. The revision stated in part:

"In some circumstances, such as academic scholarship about figures of historical importance, provisional diagnostic evaluations may be made and should be subject to peer review and academic scrutiny based on relevant standards of scholarship."

The protection of individuals from public comment as to their psychiatric problems is of genuine concern. In cases such as that of Saddam Hussein, however, we are speaking of well-known leaders, who, regardless of mental status, often are the subject of considerable public criticism and seem to withstand it reasonably well.

Surely, whether you agree with Dr. Post's analysis or not, he did the right thing answering his country's call to testify about Saddam Hussein's mental health. (Disclosure: I, too, have published analyses of the personalities of public figures, including that of Saddam Hussein). Dr. Post's work allows us to intellectually engage in assessing and predicting the actions of such leaders, so as to guide our approaches to dealing with them.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill crafted a powerful rationale for freedom of expression. If a new opinion contradicted commonly-held beliefs but was nonetheless correct, Mill said, then openly discussing it would allow other clear thinkers to agree with it. Alternatively, if the new opinion were incorrect, its discussion would help people who heard it better understand the correctness of their commonly-held beliefs. Diverse opinions ought to be allowed, Mill wrote, as "All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility...".

It is only through Dr. Post's and others' willingness to engage in the analysis of our leaders that the science of understanding such leaders' behaviors can develop. Such a science ultimately may improve both our choice of leaders and our capacities to cope with dangerous ones.

That said, no matter how scholarly and thoughtful we are, any of us can be wrong when judging a person -- and we often are. Training and intelligence offer only modest protection from errors when we make such judgments of others.

Mental health professionals and the public already are well aware of this. Consumers of expert opinion in almost any field understand the fallibility of experts. This is in part why I view the Goldwater rule as overly restrictive and outdated: psychiatrists and others ought to be able to speak their minds prudently and allow the listener to decide whether there is a basis for their judgments.

Consider a possible addition to a future revision of the Goldwater rule: "When asked for their opinions as to the mental health and stability of a potentially-dangerous public leader, those psychiatrists who have studied the individual's life and are competent to do so have a responsibility to inform the public of their viewpoints."

True, the psychiatrists and others who commented would have limited confidence that their analyses were correct, but the discussions those analyses might generate could prompt greater progress in understanding our leaders in the future.


The quotes "All silencing of..." and "...opinions contrary..." are from pp. 10 and 31-32 respectively of Mill, J.S. (1913). On Liberty (People's Edition). London: Longmans, Green, & Co.. (Downloaded from Google Books).

Post J.M. Ethical considerations in psychiatric profiling of political figures. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2002;25(3):635-646.

Anonymojus post: The anonymously-authored piece on the site concludes psychiatrists comments were "an embarrassment to the profession." They deemed these reckless assertions.

Moran, M. (October 17, 2008). Lingering questions prompt ‘Goldwater rule' evaluation. Psychiatric News.

Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer

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