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Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility
A Major Test Case Will Soon be Decided by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals
In a few days, on June 5, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will be hearing a case that is of considerable importance to academic freedom. Also under scrutiny will be the societal role and responsibility of intellectuals, especially professionals, to be able to share their knowledge, especially when they can inform of great dangers to society so as to improve public safety and wellbeing.
The Court will be hearing an appeal of my case, Bandy X. Lee v. Yale University. However, this quite unusual, and I believe very important, case goes far beyond myself, though I am the person bringing it. I brought my legal challenge against Yale, because it is a dangerous time when journalists and intellectuals—the sources on which democracy relies for facts and knowledge—are silenced.
Yale is my beloved alma mater, from which I have received my doctorate of medicine and master of divinity degrees. Then, after a brief training period at Harvard, I returned to teach at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Law School for 17 years, helping to launch the University’s Global Health Initiative and certificate program, in which I taught the most popular course and was the only medical faculty to do so for Yale College. I received many awards, achieved international acclaim in my field, and published an important textbook as well as more than one hundred peer-reviewed articles and chapters—before being abruptly dismissed in 2020.
My unexpected and wrongful dismissal was for insisting that I had a professional responsibility—along with many esteemed colleagues who contributed to the book I edited, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President—to speak up about the unprecedented dangers that would result from having someone like Trump in the presidency.
Far more important than what has happened to me, however, is to find out the real reason actions were taken to dismiss me, within forty-eight hours of Alan Dershowitz making a complaint, since my academic performance had not changed.
What Yale was coerced to do in my case represents a serious threat to the integrity of all our universities and to their basic mission in our democracy to provide space for the most significant teaching and research, as well as studying, learning, and conferencing, to occur. To accomplish this mission, professors as well as students must be free of constraints, pressures, and fears—especially when the issues involved are of great public concern and consequence.
The circumstances of my dismissal are known to be suspicious, coming at a time when there was considerable expectation that Donald Trump could remain in office. Pressures brought onto the University included that of the rather notorious Trump propagandist Alan Dershowitz. There is also an organization that I believe should be investigated, for the Trump-inspired and then Trump-rewarded false accusations it made against me—the American Psychiatric Association (APA)—that led to my Yale dismissal as well as major media semi-blackout.
Furthermore, the District Court first ruled that my case was meritorious and should proceed, only to have the senior judge who made that ruling be replaced by a new, quite junior judge, without explanation. In contrast to the senior judge, this new judge, who was just a magistrate judge before, ruled in idiosyncratic ways, making unconventional interpretations of my case. As a result, my suit was dismissed at trial level.
Much like the APA, which almost immediately received a building in the center of Washington, DC, and unprecedented federal funding after silencing me, this junior judge was almost instantly promoted to Appellate Court—where my current case will be heard—after she ruled unfavorably against me. The senior judge, who is highly-respected and has a far more considerable track record, remains without such a promotion.
Only if the Appellate Court rules that my lawsuit against Yale can go forward will we be able to get to the bottom of what happened, through the legal discovery process and testimony under oath, as to why, how, and who benefited.
Most important of all, how it is resolved will have considerable impact on many others and whether academic freedom and professional integrity will be properly protected and indeed applauded.
This case deals with the imperative that intellectuals not be fearful of retribution, and not be inhibited from speaking up, when they realize that there are major social, medical, and overlapping political issues about which they believe society needs to be informed—and to do so is their professional as well as moral and civic responsibility.
The Court of Appeals will not be deciding the merits of my case in a few days. It will simply be deciding whether my very well-documented case against Yale can proceed to trial; whether the critical discovery process can take place; whether witnesses and those involved can be called to testify under oath, including Alan Dershowitz, Yale University officials, other leading academics, and myself; and whether all the evidence and arguments will be properly heard, in view of the ramifications involved, and thus made publicly known through a case decided on the merits before an impartial Court of Law.
That is the primary reason why I have brought my case against my alma mater in the first place. That is why I believe my case against my still-beloved Yale is vitally important to academic freedom, to our democratic form of government, and to critical issues of public mental health and societal safety.
That is why I greatly hope that the Court of Appeals will say, “Yes, Dr. Lee”—as did the original trial judge—“your case has merit and should proceed to trial.”
Academic freedom is an essential part of preserving our country’s democracy, of ensuring the electorate’s ability to make fully-informed decisions, of providing the space for debates, where intellectuals can publicly share facts as well as their cumulative knowledge and relevant experience. Professionals and academics have a responsibility to speak up thoughtfully and forcefully, to allow for society to benefit from their education, experience, and expertise, as well as to help improve the human community and better the public’s health and wellbeing. This is what our country is supposed to be all about.