When the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College invited Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to speak on March 3 about the importance of the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, they billed the event as an opportunity to “discuss the issues facing America today.”
They noted that Kennedy is an environmental lawyer, bestselling author, and activist who founded Children’s Health Defense and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The institute’s executive director, Neil Levesque, tweeted about the “standing room only” crowd at what he has called “the premier stop” for prospective presidential candidates.
Levesque did not mention Kennedy’s crusade against vaccines. But, during his speech, Kennedy did. And it was enough for YouTube to reject a recording of Kennedy’s full speech, uploaded by Manchester Public TV, for violating the video platform’s “medical misinformation” policy.
A spokesperson for YouTube told the Globe that the company’s policies were enforced in Kennedy’s case as they are for everyone regardless of a speaker’s political views.
“While we do allow content with educational, documentary, scientific or artistic context, such as news reports, the content we removed from this channel was raw footage and did not provide sufficient context,” the spokesperson said.
Kennedy, who has railed against social media censorship and sued news outlets over their efforts to combat pandemic-related misinformation, told the Globe on Thursday that he intends to file a lawsuit over YouTube’s decision about this video.
“Democracy can’t function without the free flow of information, and if you give somebody the power to censor their opponents, they’re going to abuse that power,” he said.
Scott J. Street, an attorney for Kennedy, sent a letter on Wednesday to Google, which owns YouTube, claiming that the company censored Kennedy’s speech “because his statements were politically unpalatable to government officials.”
“The politicization of this issue would be troubling under ordinary circumstances,” Scott wrote. “It is especially troubling since Mr. Kennedy said he may seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.”
The Democratic National Committee’s decision to push South Carolina to the front of its nominating calendar has riled political leaders in New Hampshire, who have vowed to hold their traditional first-in-the-nation primaries for Republicans and Democrats alike, even if the DNC continues to withhold its blessing.
That could open up a lane for a Democratic challenger to garner attention in the Granite State and win a primary that Biden would be expected to skip — a scenario that could lend a bigger platform to candidates on the party’s fringes.
That’s the context in which Marianne Williamson, who ended her 2020 presidential campaign a month before New Hampshire’s primary, came back to the Granite State this week. She announced her 2024 candidacy on March 4 and addressed the New Hampshire Senate on Thursday morning before a round of campaigning at coffee shops in Portsmouth and Exeter.
“I am here as part of a great roiling debate about democracy right now, in terms of the Democratic Party honoring the fact that this is the first primary state,” she told the Senate. “But that’s small compared to the larger issues that confront all of us who are part of the larger political conversations at this time.”
Senate President Jeb Bradley, a Republican, invited Williamson to speak and extolled the state’s traditional role in vetting presidents.
“Whether it’s a house party, diner, or the Senate chamber, we ask candidates the tough questions instead of relying on glossy campaign ads,” Bradley said. “We will continue this process regardless of the Democratic National Committee’s attempt to hijack our primary.”
The description of Kennedy’s event at the Institute of Politics noted his recent open letter to the DNC urging them not to get in the way of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. And, during his March 3 speech, Kennedy confirmed that he’s “thinking about” making a presidential run, having cleared “the biggest hurdle” now that his wife, Cheryl Hines, has given him her go-ahead.
Kennedy, 69, comes from one of America’s most influential political dynasties, but he has never been elected to public office himself. He was 9 years old when his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963, and 14 when his father, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was gunned down on the presidential campaign trail in 1968.
As an adult, his professional work has included authoring bestselling books and fighting for clean water as an environmental lawyer. His record as a nonprofit founder has been riddled with controversy over his conspiracy theories and advocacy against vaccines.
Public health experts denounced the Manchester, N.H.-based political institute’s decision to give Kennedy such a prominent platform.
“It’s irresponsible,” said Dr. Paul A. Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a well-known expert on virology and immunology.
“Robert Kennedy Jr. has no expertise in this area. He simply gets up in front of the public and misinforms them,” Offit said. As a result, some parents have put their children in harm’s way, Offit added.
Anne N. Sosin, a policy fellow at Dartmouth College’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, said it’s especially unfortunate that anti-vaccine misinformation is being spread in New Hampshire, where there are large disparities in vaccination rates, despite a better overall rate than many states. The disparities, she said, happen “in large part because people have promoted misinformation and disinformation.”
“Kennedy’s claims are not grounded in evidence,” Sosin said. “There’s overwhelming evidence that vaccines continue to be safe for all groups, including children. They have saved a number of lives.”
Kennedy told the Globe he stands by his claims, and he said the phrase “vaccine misinformation” is a broad euphemism for statements that depart from government-approved conclusions. Levesque, the institute’s director, told the Globe he stands by the decision to give Kennedy a platform. He criticized YouTube’s decision to remove the video.
“In my 14 years of doing this, hosting six to eight big events a week, I’ve never had someone’s speech censored like that,” Levesque said. “And it surprised me.”
“You don’t have to go to it,” Levesque added. “You don’t even have to listen to it. And if you don’t agree with it, you can debate him, which is what he said. If you don’t agree with what he said, you can prove him wrong.”
YouTube’s decision to reject the video from its platform drew a shrug from Manchester Public TV, where Executive Director Jason Cote said his team won’t appeal. The station has filmed hundreds of events at the institute, and this is the only video that has ever been blocked, Cote said.
Levesque said he can’t boss YouTube around since it’s not his company, but he can and will commit to continue lending the institute’s podium to a wide variety of political guests, including those who are thinking about running for the White House.
“We are going to have a lot of people in that political or presidential world that a lot of other people don’t agree with and maybe see as people that are not being honest about whatever the subject is,” he said. “And we’re still going to have them speak.”
That’s not to say the institute will let any prominent politico speak on any topic. Levesque put his foot down last fall when a third party invited former president Donald Trump’s advisor and personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to join an election-related panel discussion at the institute. Levesque said at the time that the institute “is in the democracy business,” wouldn’t host the event, and that he himself wouldn’t participate in any such panel with Giuliani, who “has actively worked to undermine the integrity of our elections.”
Levesque said the circumstances surrounding the Giuliani and Kennedy events aren’t comparable, especially considering the violence that erupted at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, based on lies spread by Giuliani and others.
Levesque said Kennedy delivered a “very respectable speech” last week.
“He’s not violent, quite the opposite actually,” Levesque said. “And he’s expressing a view which he believes is backed up by science.”
Felice J. Freyer of the Globe staff contributed to this report.