mayo clinic michael joyner
The Mayo Clinic College of Medicine is asking a judge to dismiss three of five claims lodged by a professor suing the school, arguing it has no legal and contractual obligation to protect its faculty's academic freedom and freedom of speech.

The clinic argues in court documents its academic freedom policy is not a binding contract with Dr. Michael Joyner, the plaintiff and longtime professor of anesthesiology. The clinic states the policy "expressly reserves to Mayo the right to regulate employees' speech and conduct."

On Monday, Third District Court Judge Kathy Wallace heard oral arguments from attorneys representing the clinic and Joyner, who sued the institution last November after the college punished him for sharing his contrarian views with the media on controversial topics such as COVID-19 treatments and testosterone's effects on athletic performance.

He had also criticized the NIH, which provides the Mayo Clinic with hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

During the 30-minute hearing, Kelly Miller, an attorney representing Joyner on behalf of the Academic Freedom Alliance, argued that the "main question in this motion is whether Mayo is responsible for upholding their promises to employees found in their policies and procedures."

"Mayo's motion contends that it can violate these promises ... whenever it wants," Miller told the judge. "Dr. Joyner is tenured, and the policies at issue are part of his tenured contract with Mayo, like other policies the Minnesota courts have found binding."

According to court documents, Joyner has worked at the college for 36 years. Last year, he was given a one-week unpaid suspension and told to stop media interviews by his bosses, who were also named in the suit as defendants. The clinic has asked the judge to drop them from the lawsuit.

Mayo's representative told the judge the policies are simply "general policy statements" with no binding legal obligations and brushed off Joyner's tenure claims.

"What these policies do is state Mayo's commitment to the principles of academic freedom and anti-retaliation," said Ryan Mick, an attorney representing the clinic and its defendants. "A general statement of policy is not enough. It's not definite enough to constitute a contract offer."

Miller countered that Mayo claimed Joyner's appointment was "akin to tenure" and adopted its written academic freedom policy when it was convenient for tax breaks that would come with classification as an educational institution, but refused to uphold it concerning Joyner's case.

"Mayo adopted this policy to secure academic accreditation, which bolstered its image as an educational institution for the tax case," Miller said. "Now Mayo contends this policy, which as written grants faculty rights, actually doesn't grant faculty any rights, but instead only reserves rights to Mayo to control faculty speech."

The April 8 hearing centered around three of the clinic's policies: its academic freedom policy, its employee anti-retaliation policy and its appeals policy, all of which Joyner, an anesthesiology professor, claimed the college breached after he was punished last year.

Mayo's academic freedom policy states it will protect faculty from "fear of retribution or retaliation if those opinions and conclusions conflict with those of the faculty or [Mayo as an] institution."

Joyner alleged these policies are a "binding contract" the clinic is legally obligated to follow due to his tenure status. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, an organization committed to protecting free speech, agrees.

"This is belied by the written text of the policies and Joyner's actions here, which clearly show that they are intended to be binding," Zachary Greenberg, a senior program officer at FIRE, told The College Fix in a phone interview Tuesday.

"The policies are supposed to be protective of faculty rights, and the university has these policies for a reason," he said.

The Academic Freedom Alliance, a coalition of faculty members dedicated to upholding academic freedom, issued a memorandum to the court ahead of Monday's arguments.

"[I]n its attempt to read the academic freedom policy out of existence, Mayo's motion to dismiss simply ignores the fact that speaking at academic conferences and freely publishing and discussing his research are specific requirements of Dr. Joyner's academic appointment," the foundation argued.

Greenberg also said that, as part of getting accredited as an educational establishment to receive the benefits of being a college, an institution must promise academic freedom to its faculty and students.

"It (refusal to honor its academic freedom policy) should affect their accreditation," Greenberg said. "It would be incumbent upon Mayo to adhere to these promises... they did it, they promised it, and they should uphold it."

During the hearing, Miller also said that Mayo made clear that the policies at issue are contractual because they lack a disclaimer that other clinic policies include that state "the contents of this policy are not intended to constitute a contract."

Mick's response was: "There's a lot there. But respectfully, none of it matters," and insisted Mayo's policies do not constitute a contract.

In its motion to dismiss, the clinic pointed out that the policy states: "Notwithstanding Mayo's commitment to the principle of academic freedom, the Academic Freedom Policy expressly reserves to Mayo the right to regulate employees' speech and conduct."

"[The Mayo Clinic College of Medicine] may restrict expression that violates the law or that is otherwise directly incompatible with Mayo Clinic values and policies. Nothing in this policy prevents MCCMS from regulating speech or activity as allowed by law."

The Olmsted County judge is set to make a decision on the hearing in the coming weeks, and a jury trial is scheduled for July 2025.

Greenberg, in his interview with The Fix, argued that academic freedom drives "the search for truth and innovation that universities and faculty should strive to uphold."

"We really want to have faculty speaking freely, and if a university doesn't enforce promises and uphold them, you're going to have the kind of censorship that we see here, perhaps many medical colleges across the nation," he said.