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Yale shreds faculty rights to rid itself of professor who called Trump mentally unstable

Federal appellate court rules in favor of Yale after university argues its free speech and academic freedom promises are not binding.
Bandy Lee and Donald Trump

Yale University declined to renew the teaching contract of adjunct professor Bandy Lee (left) in 2020 after she criticized the mental state of then-President Donald Trump (right).

Yale University scored another victory last week in its three-year battle against its own free speech and academic freedom promises

In a ruling that can only be concerning for faculty rights, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit against Yale by Bandy Lee, who was let go in 2020 as a voluntary assistant clinical psychiatry professor after tweeting about then-President Donald Trump’s “mental instability” and saying his supporters suffer from “shared psychosis.” 

And Yale couldn’t be happier with the judge’s decision. 

As FIRE pointed out in 2021 shortly after Yale successfully asked a district court to dismiss Lee’s lawsuit, the university was saying one thing in its statements and policies — that the school adheres to robust free speech principles — while saying something very different in a court of law.

Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Located in the heart of today's Central Campus, the Sterling Memorial Library is one of Yale's most prominent buildings.

Court filing: Yale’s lawyers make surprising claims about the school’s academic freedom promises


Yale claimed in its brief to the Second Circuit that the university’s renowned “Woodward Report,” which fundamentally reshaped the school’s free speech policies back in 1975, was merely a “statement of principles,” and “not a set of contractual promises.” That, despite the fact that there are decades of remarks by Yale leadership that explicitly point to the Woodward Report as the basis for faculty free speech and academic freedom rights at the university, and by which Yale purported to stand.

Upon its release in 1975, the Woodward Report was the strongest commitment to academic freedom and free speech ever adopted by a university. It is widely seen as a precursor to the “Chicago Statement,” which FIRE considers to be the gold standard in campus free speech commitments. In this respect, C. Vann Woodward was a pioneer, but apparently Yale’s leadership couldn’t care less.

In her appeal, Lee cited promises made by Yale in both the faculty handbook and the Woodward Report, which is quoted therein, proclaiming “a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within [a university’s] walls but with the world beyond as well” and that “a university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom.”

But the Second Circuit, like the trial court before it, sided with Yale, labeling the school’s free speech commitments as a “generalized support for academic freedom” that does not constitute “the formation of a contract of the type Lee asserts.” The court also held Connecticut’s statutory protection for employees against employer discipline or discharge for First Amendment protected activity does not apply here. The reasoning: Lee was not an employee but an unpaid voluntary assistant.

The leadership at Yale may feel like this is a victory, but it’s a giant leap backward for faculty rights and a stain on Yale’s legacy.

As FIRE has said many times before, universities should not be policing faculty social media accounts, and when there’s public outcry over a faculty member’s protected speech, universities should publicly support the free speech rights of faculty. That’s what former University of Chicago president and free speech champion Robert Zimmer did while he helmed a campus community.

“Fundamentally, people are very comfortable with free expression for those that they agree with,” Zimmer said in a 2021 interview shortly before he stepped down as president of the university. “And for those that they find disagreeable or wrong, they’re not that eager to have people be able to hear them. The whole point of education is focused around ongoing intellectual challenge and open discourse.”

Yale free expression scores shows most students are uncomfortable sharing their opinions and expressing themselves
The state of free expression at Yale University is dire, according to polling data gathered by College Pulse for FIRE's annual College Free Speech Rankings survey.

Yale’s leaders should have listened to Zimmer, and to FIRE when we urged them to adhere to their commitments. Instead, Yale’s leaders decided to tarnish their school’s reputation. Yale has done everything in its power to disavow Lee, even when doing so violated its free speech and academic freedom promises, which ultimately helped Yale earn FIRE’s infamous “Lifetime Censorship Award” in 2022.

The leadership at Yale may feel like this is a victory, but it’s a giant leap backward for faculty rights and a stain on Yale’s legacy.

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