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University of Arizona Professor Alleges Retaliation for Marijuana Study

University of Arizona (UA) Professor Suzanne A. Sisley has alleged that the university chose not to renew her contract in retaliation for her advocacy and research relating to medical uses for marijuana.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Sisley’s study had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and in March she obtained approval from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to conduct research with marijuana provided by a government-run farm in Mississippi. The study nevertheless met with some resistance:

[Sisley] had lobbied state lawmakers for approval to use state funds collected at medical marijuana dispensaries to help pay for the work. When a powerful Republican senator maneuvered to block that money, some of Sisley’s allies launched an unsuccessful recall effort.

Sisley said she did not get involved, but that university officials were irate when some activists she described as “overzealous” put the university logo on one of their political flyers. Sisley said a university vice president ordered her to draft a statement outlining all her political activism, which she did.

“I didn’t even support the recall,” Sisley said. “I thought it was a waste of energy.”

But despite the fact that Sisley made her research plans in accordance with the law, and despite her non-involvement with the recall effort (though such speech would likely have been constitutionally protected anyway), the university decided to terminate her employment as of September 26. A university spokesperson has denied that the decision was motivated by political pressure. Sisley disagreed, arguing, “This is a clear political retaliation for the advocacy and education I have been providing the public and lawmakers. I pulled all my evaluations and this is not about my job performance.”

FIRE is closely monitoring Sisley’s case.

If Sisley’s claims are accurate, UA isn’t the only university taking action to suppress educational efforts relating to marijuana. In 2012, Iowa State University (ISU) rescinded its approval for T-shirts designed by the ISU chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and last year and this year ISU flat out rejected new designs that simply stated NORML’s mission. Because this amounted to viewpoint discrimination against the student group, FIRE recently helped two student members file suit as part of our new Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.

But those concerned with the benefits or legality of marijuana aren’t the only ones who should be concerned about these sorts of incidents. When universities make faculty hiring decisions based on legislative or public responses to professors’ research, academic freedom is put at risk. Professors will quickly learn the lesson that it is safer to conduct research that does not stray beyond that which is popular or already established—and societal progress will suffer.

FIRE will report further updates on Sisley’s case here on The Torch.

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