Port: Trying to silence mask/vaccine dissenters is only helping them

As difficult as it is, we must always have room for debate, even if we think those on the other side have the wrong conclusions or nefarious motivations because when we stop debating we stop trusting one another.

Dr. Jeff Horak, a surgeon at Lake Region Healthcare, addresses the Fergus Falls School Board on Oct. 11, 2021. As of Thursday, Oct. 21, he was no longer employed with Lake Region. YouTube / Calvary Chapel Fergus Falls

MINOT, N.D. — "I was in good standing at the hospital the day I went to the school board meeting, and I was in good standing all the way through until nine later when I was served notice by the president of our board."

Those are the words of Dr. Jeff Horak , a Fergus Falls physician who was fired by his employer, Lake Region Medical Group, after remarks he made at a local school board meeting against mask mandates .

"This mandate across the board, that's a tough place to go," Dr. Horak told the school board while dressed in his scrubs. "Who does God put in charge of their kids? Their parents," he continued during an approximately five-minute speech. "God gave each one of these kids to their parents. Their parents speak for them, and they may be wrong, dumb or perfect in their decision-making, but it's still their responsibility."

In an interview after his firing, Dr. Horak told WDAY he wouldn't have done anything differently .



  • Port: I don't blame hospitals for reticence to release vaccination numbers If someone suffers from COVID-19 unnecessarily because a health care worker they interacted with wasn't vaccinated, that's a travesty, but so is an emergency room patient seeing a delay because of staff shortages.

  • Port: It shouldn't be this hard to use North Dakota money to help North Dakotans Just so you understand what's going on, for the SIB and its money managers, investing in censorious companies that do the dirty work of Communists is somehow less controversial than providing capital for North Dakota-based companies.

  • Friday Mailbag: Cognitive tests for politicians, decline in conservatism, and how I deal with angry readers If you want your feedback included in this column, email it to

The line between school board authority, and parental authority, is a tough one to define. Yes, parents should have primacy over their kids, but the kids attend schools that are in need of policies, and parents often disagree over what those policies should be. School boards can't let every child follow a different set of rules in keeping with the views of their parents. Decisions have to be made, and inevitably, some people are going to find themselves at odds with those decisions.
It's how the democratic process works. If you want to live in a free society, you're going to have to accept that sometimes political outcomes don't go your way.

The issue at hand isn't whether you or I agree with Dr. Horak's views of mask mandates. The question is whether he should be able to express those views without fear of reprisal from his employer.

In a legal sense, Dr. Horak's former employers can hire or fire as they please, within the bounds of applicable laws and contracts. But as a practical matter, does anyone think this sort of thing helps us in our current situation?

Our nation is grappling with a crisis of trust. Vast swaths of the public, both right and left, don't trust our institutions. Not academia or the news media or even the medical community. In that mistrust are the seeds of chaos and suffering and, taken to the extreme, societal collapse.

We need to find ways to rehabilitate that trust.

Now ask yourself: Does cracking down on dissenters in the medical community help rebuild trust? Does martyring, on the altar of conformity, a doctor with what appears to be a long track record of fine service to his patients and employers, not exacerbate our problems with conspiracy-minded complainers?


I don't agree with Dr. Horak's views on mask mandates. I think they can help, in some circumstances, and I don't believe that the school boards implementing them are guilty of any sort of an affront to parental rights. But I also think someone like Dr. Horak should be able to disagree with me without being acted against.

Yes, free speech can have consequences, but that doesn't mean it should.

Even people who are on the right side of the issue can be wrong if they're trying to win the debate by silencing others. What happened to Dr. Horak is, unfortunately, not unusual in our society. Not so long ago, arguing that the COVID-19 virus may have originated from a Chinese laboratory was enough to get you sanctioned, on social media and elsewhere , because powerful people had decided that the theory was racist.

Turns out, that was wrong.

The National School Board Association sent a letter to the Department of Justice seeking federal law enforcement intervention against the protesters showing up at school board meetings. The organization has now apologized for the language in that letter . We can all agree that while some of the behavior at school board meetings has crossed ethical, and even legal, lines, there was no justification for branding school board protesters as "domestic terrorists."

It was an attempt at silencing dissent through intimidation, and it's gratifying to know the organization now knows they were wrong to do it.

As difficult as it is, we must always have room for debate, even if we think those on the other side have the wrong conclusions or nefarious motivations because when we stop debating we stop trusting one another.

And we're all now seeing the consequences of that.


CORRECTION: Originally this column indicated that Dr. Horak was fired by Lake Region Healthcare. That was incorrect. "Dr. Horak is part of Lake Region Medical Group, the partnership of providers that LRH contracts with," Kent Mattson, the CEO of Lake Region Healthcare, said in an email. "Dr. Horak was placed by LRMG for services at LRH under our Professional Services Agreement. To be clear, in this case the LRMG Board made the decision about discontinuing Dr. Horak’s practice, not LRH. The reasons for any separation are among Dr. Horak and LRMG." The column has been edited to reflect the correct information.

To comment on this article, visit

Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
What To Read Next
Bills in the ND Legislature are aimed at banning books at local libraries, telling cities how they must hold elections, telling universities what they can’t teach, and telling school districts to teach fetal development.
Brickner writes, "Some call this the “politics of distraction.” We must not drag attention away from real issues to sideshows.
I realized mulling over 2022 that there were things I'll never be able to enjoy again. Some experiences are irreplaceable; only memory survives, and that too will vanish someday.
Grande discusses bills in the North Dakota Legislature aimed at food security.