Doctors are trained to speak truth to patients, especially when doing so is difficult. But at Mayo Clinic College of Medical Science, an internal memo reveals no qualms about muzzling medical faculty for speaking their minds, even after the controversy surrounding the college’s punishment of professor Michael Joyner for expressing his views on public health. The memo also demonstrates a distorted conception of free speech which runs contrary to the promises the college makes to its professors.
On June 16, about a week after FIRE publicly called on Mayo Clinic to rescind its punishment of Joyner for “fail[ing] to communicate in accordance with prescribed messaging,” Chief Communication Officer Halena Gazelka recommended in a memo to college leadership that they should take a “nothing to see here” approach. The memo encouraged those questioned about this issue to baselessly assert that “Mayo Clinic remains fully committed to academic freedom and expression.” Meanwhile, Joyner remains unable to speak to journalists without college permission under a gag order issued in March, in blatant violation of Mayo Clinic’s Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom Policy.
The memo also claims “Mayo Clinic did not discipline Dr. Joyner for statements he made about transgender athletes,” and encourages leadership to say that Joyner was suspended “for making unprofessional comments about the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) regulation of convalescent plasma.” Gazelka helpfully clarified why the college censored Joyner, explaining that “Dr. Joyner’s comments about the NIH did not reflect the expression of a scientific or academic opinion but instead were an expression of his personal frustration with the NIH’s regulation of a therapy he had championed.”
Perhaps medical schools don’t teach that speaking out against the government is one of the core rights protected by free speech.
Just so we’re clear: Mayo Clinic apparently believes upholding free speech includes muzzling faculty for criticizing a federal health agency. Perhaps medical schools don’t teach that speaking out against the government is one of the core rights protected by free speech. Whether faculty are sharing their expertise, chastising the state, or discussing other societal issues, free speech protects them when they speak in their personal capacities — which is exactly what Joyner did when talking to the media about his research.
Mayo Clinic’s treatment of Joyner illustrates precisely why fostering free speech is incredibly important at medical colleges. If doctors are afraid to share their thoughts, the public — including their patients — have reason to distrust them. Further, if universities force research faculty to toe an ideological line, the academy stifles scientific innovation.
Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science suspended professor Michael J. Joyner for speaking to journalists in his personal capacity because he “failed to communicate in accordance with prescribed messaging.”
In a petition letter signed by dozens of prominent medical faculty urging Mayo Clinic to reverse course, the signatories ask:
[H]ow can anyone now believe anything any doctor from Mayo says? These Mayo administrative actions will lead to concerns that the public statements of Mayo doctors are intended to support Mayo’s reputational and business interests rather than to reflect the doctor’s honest view of scientific evidence. Mayo is inflicting a major injury to its reputation upon itself.
Bizarrely, the college also faults Joyner for allegedly “treating coworkers disrespectfully,” yet Joyner’s attorney, Kellie Miller at Allen Harris Law, counters, “Dr. Joyner’s personnel file is free of any documentation of Mayo’s ongoing and vague allegations of bullying and unprofessionalism with colleagues. In fact, his annual reviews consistently highlight his collegiality and overall excellence.” If Mayo Clinic believes Joyner was a poor colleague, it certainly hasn’t explained why or made a record reflecting as much.
Now, the college has one last chance to restore its integrity and show its medical community that, despite the efforts of its communications team, its free speech promises are not worthless. It can do so by rescinding its punishment of Joyner.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).