Physician's Dispute With Mayo Clinic Raises Free Speech, Academic Freedom Concerns

Randy Dotinga

November 16, 2023

An anesthesiologist is suing the Mayo Clinic after it allegedly ordered him to stick to "prescribed messaging" after his outspoken comments about transgender athletes and a federal agency's sluggishness regarding a COVID-19 treatment.

Michael J. Joyner, MD, claims that the Mayo Clinic violated its own policies by muzzling him, slapping him with an unpaid 1-week suspension, and labeling his comments to the media "unprofessional."

In his November 13 lawsuit, filed in Minnesota state court, Joyner asks that a judge order Mayo Clinic to stop its "retaliation and interference" with his "communications about his research." He that claims the retaliation stems from his 2020 report about a Mayo Clinic business partner's "attempt to unlawfully access and use protected patient data."

Medical institutions often refuse to comment on pending litigation. But in a pair of unusual statements, the Mayo Clinic forcefully rebutted Joyner's claims in some detail: "Dr. Joyner's lawsuit is yet another manifestation of his refusal to recognize or accept responsibility for his inappropriate behaviors," it told Becker's Hospital Review.

In a June letter to colleagues, the institution's communications head said Joyner was not punished over his transgender athlete comments but instead because he mistreated coworkers and made "unprofessional" comments to The New York Times.

Joyner, a prominent physiologist and anesthesiologist who has worked for Mayo Clinic for 36 years, has become a cause célèbre in academic and free-speech circles over the past several months.

Two conversations with journalists appear to be at the heart of the Mayo Clinic's complaints.

First, a 2022 New York Times article about transgender athletes quoted him about how testosterone dramatically affects performance in males: "There are social aspects to sport, but physiology and biology underpin it. Testosterone is the 800-pound gorilla."

"The language was at best, insensitive. At worst, transphobic," an LGBTQ advocate told a TV news station in Rochester, Minnesota, where the Mayo Clinic is based. The article didn't elaborate on why the advocate believed the language could be transphobic.

Then, a CNN story in 2023 noted that Joyner has studied convalescent plasma as a treatment for COVID-19 and quoted him about how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) declined to take a stand on the use of the therapy: "Joyner said he's 'frustrated' with the NIH's 'bureaucratic rope-a-dope,' calling the agency's guidelines 'a wet blanket'…."

It is not unusual for medical researchers to comment bluntly to the media about federal agencies.

For example, a 2020 New York Times story that unraveled the Trump Administration's apparent mischaracterization of Joyner's research into convalescent plasma quoted a University of Pittsburgh physician as saying, "For the first time ever, I feel like official people in communications and people at the FDA grossly misrepresented data about a therapy." 

In a March 5 letter, a Mayo Clinic administrator wrote to Joyner to complain that his comments regarding the NIH were an example of his "problematic" use of "idiomatic language" that "reflects poorly on Mayo Clinic's brand and reputation." A paragraph in the letter is redacted in the version posted by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which supports Joyner.

The letter adds that Joyner's comments to The New York Times "were problematic in the media and the LGBTQI+ community at Mayo Clinic." The letter, which didn't elaborate about the blowback, also says that "concerns remain with disrespectful communications with colleagues who describe your tone as unpleasant and having a 'bullying' quality to it."

Kellie Miller, one of Joyner's attorneys, noted in a statement that "Dr. Joyner's personnel file is free of any documentation of Mayo's ongoing and vague allegations of bullying and unprofessionalism with colleagues."

The letter also ordered Joyner to not be rude or criticize the work of others and repair his relationship with Mayo Clinic's public affairs staff: "[T]his will take individual effort on your part." It also ordered him to "discuss approved topics only" with reporters, "stick to prescribed messaging," and not resist if the public affairs department doesn't let him be interviewed: "Accept 'no' for an answer and move forward."

Medical institutions often monitor how their employees interact with the media in order to control "messaging." But firm rules at academic medical institutions like the Mayo Clinic may run the risk of running afoul of the tenets of academic freedom.

The institution and its CEO then retaliated by calling his claims "unprofessional," according to the lawsuit, which provided no further details about the situation.

In a statement, the Mayo Clinic said it "hired an outside attorney to investigate these concerns. The attorney, who is now a federal judge, found there was no retaliation and that Dr. Joyner had engaged in a pattern of asserting inflammatory allegations grounded almost entirely in speculation."

A petition signed by dozens of professors demands that Mayo Clinic "revoke the penalties and constraints it has imposed on him.

"Dr. Joyner, a faculty member at a medical school that avows a commitment to academic freedom and to free expression, did not exceed the limits of his expertise in any of his statements to the press that led to these sanctions," they wrote. "At no time did he claim to be speaking for the Mayo Clinic, and his remarks were well within the mainstream of the range of scientific opinion on topics in which he is expert."

Randy Dotinga is a freelance medical writer and board member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.


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