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Northwestern Risks Academic Freedom (Again) by Censoring Bioethics Journal with ‘Bad Girls’ Theme

June 16, 2015

CHICAGO, June 16, 2015—Academic freedom is apparently no longer a part of Northwestern University’s “brand.” For over 14 months, administrators at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine (FSM) censored Atrium—a faculty-produced bioethics journal—because an issue featured content with a “Bad Girls” theme deemed too salacious for the university’s image. Northwestern is now requiring that future journal content be reviewed by university administrators prior to its publication.

This is the second time in less than a month that Northwestern finds itself at the center of an academic freedom controversy over issues of sex and gender. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to Northwestern on May 26, calling on the university to honor its promises of academic freedom and cease its repeated intrusions on Atrium’s editorial independence. The university has yet to respond.

“The ability to explore controversial subjects lies at the heart of academic freedom,” said Peter Bonilla, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Northwestern cannot promise ‘full freedom in research and in the publication of the results’ while limiting that freedom to protect its ‘brand.’ A university’s brand should be the unfettered search for truth, not politically motivated censorship.”

Atrium’s fight for free expression goes back more than a year to the publication of its Winter 2014 issue in February 2014. The issue featured a “Bad Girls” theme and was guest-edited by FSM Professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics Alice Dreger. Featuring contributions from a variety of scholars from across the country, the issue included an essay by Syracuse University Professor William J. Peace about his rehabilitation after being paralyzed in 1978 at the age of 18. In his essay, titled “Head Nurses,” Peace describes his experience of receiving consensual oral sex from a nurse, an episode that eased fears he had lost his ability to function sexually. Peace credited the nurse, whom he remained friends with throughout her lifetime, with aiding his psychological recovery.

Northwestern officials were reportedly concerned about the “Bad Girls” issue, and Peace’s article in particular, worrying that it would hurt the “brand” of FSM and Northwestern Medicine, the corporate parent overseeing the university’s hospital system. Under pressure from the university, the Medical Humanities & Bioethics Program (MHB Program, which publishes Atrium) removed the “Bad Girls” issue, as well as all previously published Atrium issues, from its website.

It was not until May 18, 2015—14 months after the “Bad Girls” issue was removed from its website—that Northwestern officials withdrew their objections to the issue’s posting. This reversal came only a day after Dreger informed the university that she intended to publicize the controversy.

Though Atrium’s issues are back online, its most serious struggles may be yet to come. Dreger reports that Northwestern has formed a new oversight committee tasked with reviewing the content of Atrium’s next issue. This is a significant departure from the publication’s past editorial practice, giving rise to concerns that the university will take an active role in policing the publication’s content.

“Through this censorship my dean’s office put me in the position of either staying silent and being a hypocrite or calling out my own dean on censorship,” said Dreger, who recently authored a book on academic freedom and the struggle for truth and justice in the sciences. “I told our university public relations people, the dean’s office, and ultimately our provost that I resented being put in this position, particularly when the censorship was so unnecessary and capricious.”

Northwestern has already been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent weeks. On May 29, Professor Laura Kipnis revealed that she endured a 72-day university investigation following multiple Title IX complaints over an essay she published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Given the negative publicity Northwestern has suffered for subjecting Kipnis’s free expression to a chilling and prolonged investigation, we would hope that Northwestern would promptly get in front of this controversy and affirm its support of Atrium and the MHB Program’s rights,” said Bonilla. “That it hasn’t yet done so suggests Northwestern may have even more work to do to be truly protective of free expression than was previously thought.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Nico Perrino, Associate Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; nico@thefire.org

Eric G. Neilson, Lewis Landsberg Dean and Vice President for Medical Affairs, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine: 312-503-0340; egneilson@northwestern.edu

Morton Schapiro, President, Northwestern University: 847-491-7456; nu-president@northwestern.edu

Schools: Northwestern University Cases: Northwestern University: Censorship of Faculty-Produced Bioethics Journal with “Bad Girls” Theme