Mayo Clinic and medical school under FIRE by free speech watchdog

Not so long ago, Mayo Clinic celebrated the refreshing communication style of longtime medical school Professor Dr. Michael Joyner. The provocative professor was even featured on the cover of a magazine dug up by the Post Bulletin.

Joyner, who started at Mayo Clinic as part of an internship in 1988, is known as an often outspoken expert about fitness, sports and the convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19.

In a 2016 Rochester Magazine profile titled “this person is a cheeky heretic,” Mayo Clinic Proceedings Editor-in-Chief Dr. William Lanier praised Joyner’s challenging approach to communication.

“Whether you agree with him or not, it is always entertaining to hear his ideas, and he is the type of scientist and colleague who constantly encourages us to challenge our thinking as he challenges his own thinking,” Lanier stated at the time.

It would be tough to top that endorsement. But now Joyner finds himself in Mayo’s doghouse for speaking his mind in interviews with CNN and the New York Times.

Mayo Clinic’s suspension of a high-profile doctor for using “idiomatic language” in media interviews that “reflects poorly” on Mayo Clinic’s brand is at the center of a freedom of speech debate.

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a national nonpartisan and nonprofit organization focused on free speech, recently posted an article about Mayo Clinic disciplining Dr. Michael Joyner with an unpaid suspension for a week in March and withholding his scheduled raise…

Zach Greenberg, who wrote the FIRE article headlined “Mayo Clinic medical college to doctor: Sit down and shut up,” described Mayo Clinic’s action as “a gag order” and something from a “dystopian novel.”

The interviews that led to Mayo’s disciplinary action against the professor focused on the hot button issues of COVID-19 and transgender athletes. After Joyner reached out to FIRE, the First Amendment watchdog took up his case as a matter of academic freedom guaranteed to faculty and the professor’s right to express himself as a private individual.

The New York Times quoted Joyner as saying, “There are social aspects to sport, but physiology and biology underpin it. Testosterone is the 800-pound gorilla.” Mayo Clinic’s letter described those statements as “problematic in the media and the LGBTQI+ community at Mayo Clinic.”

The Mayo Clinic [disciplinary] letter also cited an appearance by Joyner on CNN in January 2023, in which Joyner was quoted as saying that he was “frustrated” with the National Institute of Health’s “bureaucratic rope-a-dope” and its acting as a “wet blanket” toward the use of convalescent plasma as a COVID treatment.

“The fact that your selection of idiomatic expressions continues has caused the institution to question whether you are able to appropriately represent Mayo Clinic in media interactions,” according to the letter from Dr. Carlos Mantilla, the chair of the Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine Department.

Mayo insists the disciplinary actions against Joyner have nothing to do with muzzling medical school faculty.

“Mayo Clinic remains fully committed to academic freedom and expression, as demonstrated by hundreds of media interviews provided by our physicians and scientists each year. This is a personnel issue between Dr. Joyner and Mayo as his private employer, and we will not comment further at this time,” wrote Mayo Clinic Communications Director Andrea Kalmanovitz in response to the FIRE article.

While Dr. Joyner’s appeal of Mayo’s disciplinary action plays out, he’s refraining from commenting publicly. Meantime, FIRE continues to press Mayo for a resolution.

“Joyner’s media commentary falls squarely within MCCMS faculty’s free speech right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern. Likewise, there is no indication Joyner purported to represent MCCMS when speaking to media…In fact, his refusal to coordinate with the college’s Public Affairs team and conform his personal comments to MCCMS’s “prescribed messaging” show his intent to distinguish himself as separate from the college.”