A college suspends a professor for not adhering to “prescribed messaging,” imposes a gag order on him, and demands he say only what it tells him to say or nothing at all. That may sound like a dystopian novel, but it’s actually happening at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science — an American institution of higher education that promises faculty free speech, but apparently has no idea what that means.
On March 5, Mayo Clinic suspended professor Michael J. Joyner without pay. Why? Because he spoke to the press, which isn’t unusual for him. Joyner is a renowned academic sought by journalists for his expertise on a range of medical issues related to his subject-matter competence. A quick Google search reveals some of his latest commentary on issues related to COVID-19, public health, and sports performance.
But when Joyner made comments about convalescent plasma treatments for COVID-19 and sports performance research to CNN, The New York Times, and other media outlets, Mayo Clinic claimed he “failed to communicate in accordance with prescribed messaging.” According to administrators, that “reflect[ed] poorly on Mayo Clinic’s brand and reputation” and “caused the institution to question whether … [he is] able to appropriately represent Mayo Clinic in media interactions.”
But Joyner never represented Mayo Clinic in media interactions. He consistently made clear to journalists and his college that he spoke only for himself. As FIRE explained in our April and May letters to the college, faculty have the right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern, which is precisely what Joyner did when sharing his expertise with the media.
We applaud Joyner for standing up for his rights and, by extension, the rights of all Mayo Clinic faculty. Medical faculty must be able to explore the widest array of ideas to uncover advancement in their field and share their expertise with the public.
Additionally, his refusal to toe the party line is protected by free speech principles, which allow him to speak without administrators babysitting him. His failure to conform to the college’s “prescribed messaging” should be of no concern to the college. Faculty are not mouthpieces of their institutions. They cannot be punished at institutions that promise academic freedom and free speech merely because administrators dislike what professors say in their personal capacities.
But that is precisely why Mayo Clinic punished Joyner. Conceding that it suspended Joyner to protect its “brand and reputation,” Mayo Clinic said the quiet part out loud. And it was not content to punish Joyner for the comments he already made — it also muzzled him going forward. As part of his sanction, Joyner must “[v]et each individual media request through Public Affairs … [to] determine what topics are appropriate and are responsible for protecting Mayo Clinic’s brand and reputation” and “[c]ease engagement in offline conversations with reporters.”
In other words: Sit down and shut up. Joyner may not speak, and when he does, he must “[d]iscuss approved topics only and stick to prescribed messaging.”
This expansive gag order violates the free speech promises Mayo Clinic makes to its faculty. The college’s Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom Policy commits to uphold “academic freedom and freedom of expression for all learners and faculty … which includes the right to discuss and present scholarly opinions and conclusions without fear of retribution or retaliation” even “if those opinions and conclusions conflict with those of the faculty or institution.”
FIRE wrote to Mayo Clinic expressing alarm at its blatant disregard for its free speech promises by suspending Joyner.
Either this medical school doesn’t have a clue what those words mean, or it doesn’t care.
Private institutions are not bound by the First Amendment, but they must adhere to their own promises, including commitments to uphold free speech and academic freedom. When they violate these promises, they should be held accountable. That’s why FIRE wrote to Mayo Clinic expressing alarm at its blatant disregard for its free speech promises by suspending Joyner.
Mayo Clinic refused to lift the sanctions, claiming without explanation: “[D]isciplinary action taken against Dr. Joyner did not involve a gag order and did not violate our academic freedom policy.” This college’s distorted conception of free speech is about telling faculty what to say and when they can say it. Get in line or we’ll suspend you too.
Joyner is fighting back. With help from his First Amendment attorneys at Allen Harris Law, he appealed his punishment. In the meantime, Joyner remains silenced, denied his annual raise, and banned from speaking with journalists without college permission. Unsurprisingly, administrators have rejected media requests on his behalf.
We applaud Joyner for standing up for his rights and, by extension, the rights of all Mayo Clinic faculty. Medical faculty must be able to explore the widest array of ideas to uncover advancement in their field and share their expertise with the public. To this end, FIRE calls on the college to prove the worth of its free speech commitment by rescinding all discipline 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).
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