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NYU threatens to fire its doctors if they talk to the media about COVID-19 ventilator rationing

Fail to get ‘explicit permission’ and face ‘disciplinary action, including termination’

Federal agencies have recently suspended questionable regulations in a bid to speed the coronavirus response.

You’d hope that colleges would follow their lead and ditch their censorious preapproval requirements for faculty interviews, so that public health experts could, you know, address the public about health issues.

New York University does not make exceptions for COVID-19, however.

NYU Langone Health, part of the private university’s medical school, threatened to fire faculty doctors if they talked to the press without preapproval from the medical center’s Office of Communications and Marketing, The Wall Street Journal reports:

Kathy Lewis, executive vice president for communications and marketing, said in an email that NYU Langone’s longstanding policy required faculty, residents and staff to forward all media inquiries to her office.

“Anyone who does not adhere to this policy, or who speaks or disseminates information to the media without explicit permission of the Office of Communications and Marketing, will be subject to disciplinary action, including termination,” Ms. Lewis wrote.

The supposed “reminder” of current policy was issued March 28, the same day that NYU Langone encouraged faculty doctors to withhold ventilators from patients when they “feel intubation will not change their ultimate clinical outcome.”

Robert Femia (left), chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine, told doctors to “think more critically about who we intubate” so as to save ventilators, reportedly in short supply, for those with the best chance at survival.

It’s not a surprise that NYU Langone would want to threaten faculty doctors on the same day that they were told to ration care. Doctors may not like this directive and go to the press with their concerns, as two did anonymously to the Journal.

MORE: University bans profs from talking to media without preapproval

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education issued its own reminder to NYU Langone, saying its decision was intended to “chill speech of intense public concern involving matters of life and death at the onset of a global pandemic.”

It obtained another March 28 email with a less specific disciplinary threat, which was sent to faculty and staff in the Department of Population Health by Chair Marc Gourevitch.

The chair said the media had been “reaching out to speak with faculty and staff” for COVID-19 coverage, but told recipients they weren’t allowed to respond before “immediately” sending “every request” to the department’s own communications manager to “vet”:

The institution has asked that chairs emphasize the importance of strict adherence to this policy, and that speaking with or disseminating information to the media without explicit permission from the Office of Communications and Marketing is subject to disciplinary action.

“NYU has muzzled its faculty” with this “prior restraint” on their speech, FIRE wrote, quoting a Supreme Court decision that called preapproval practices “offensive” to “the very notion of a free society.” In other words, while NYU is not subject to the First Amendment, its censorship is deeply un-American.

The preapproval practice even undermines the medical center’s own ends, FIRE continued, referring to a Wuhan doctor silenced by Chinese officials: “Restrictions on medical personnel speaking out may even inadvertently threaten broader public health by inhibiting or delaying the release of vital information about the virus, its effects and transmissibility, and potential treatments.”

It quoted another warning letter to the American Hospital Association from public interest groups. They said that “muzzling health care workers who are on the front lines … may be commonplace in countries with authoritarian regimes,” but such practices are “reprehensible and reckless and endanger public health.”

The FIRE letter was signed by Will Creeley, senior vice president of legal and public advocacy, and it notes he’s an alum of both NYU’s interdisciplinary college and law school.

Crisis is not an excuse to crack down on information, but rather an illustration of why transparency is so important, FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley said in a press release: “These faculty members are there because they’re the experts. Inhibiting their ability to communicate important information about COVID-19 presents enormous risks.”

MORE: University retaliates against newspaper coverage by forcing out advisor

IMAGES: stockyimages/Shutterstock, NYU Langone Health

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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