On Friday, we introduced Torch readers to the case of Michael Wilkes, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine. Wilkes faced retaliation from the university for co-publishing a critical column in the San Francisco Chronicle in September 2010. Wilkes, an expert on prostate cancer screening whose research includes serving as a principal investigator on studies funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, criticized UC Davis’ co-sponsorship of a seminar that he felt excessively promoted one particular screening method-the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test.
Wilkes quickly faced retaliation from the UC Davis administration, including threats of lost teaching duties and office space. In a letter to Wilkes, the UC Davis Health System Counsel also suggested the possibility of legal action for "defamation." Though a UC Davis Academic Senate committee found UC Davis to have egregiously violated Wilkes’ academic freedom, and the full Academic Senate has called on UC Davis to retract its threats and apologize to Wilkes, faculty speech at UC Davis remains chilled almost two years later.
Over the weekend, Johns Hopkins University medical professor Steven Salzberg picked up on the case in his blog at Forbes, commenting on the Wonderland that faculty speech at UC Davis apparently resides in:
When challenged about these threats, the university lawyer David Levine said, in essence, what threats? My goodness, he said in a letter to Wilkes, I’m just giving you a few helpful facts:
"I am simply pointing out that there are numerous errors of fact in your article, that they were injurious to the University interests and reputation and thus potentially actionable under the law of defamation."
But heavens no, we’re not threatening to sue you or anything like that. Just pointing out some things that we’re sure you will want to know. The university’s lawyer’s explained further, in a letter to CAFR this past February, that
"The administrative action … was simply to provide information to Dr. Wilkes regarding … the potential legal exposure for broadcasting false information that is injurious to reputation."
I’m sure that Dr. Wilkes found all of this information very helpful.
Salzberg has criticized the PSA test before, but, as he points out, the substance of his and Wilkes’ criticisms is incidental to the fact that the column was a basic exercise of free speech, and deserving of protection whatever its conclusions. It’s high time for UC Davis to recognize this and take a long, hard look at the intimidation Wilkes was subject to by the UC Davis administration. "Otherwise," Salzberg writes, "they or others might very well just do it again, the next time they read an Op-Ed piece that annoys them." Well put.