Commenting on Public Figures Is Legal, But Is It Ethical?

The right to free speech is the very first Amendment to our Constitution, and it’s one of the most frequently cited amendments, especially when things get heated between two individuals or political parties. The right to free speech, specifically as it relates to public figures, was promised by our founding fathers as a way to protect our democracy. The idea is that free speech encourages an open debate and exchange of information and ideas about candidates before people head to the polls, but is there a difference between what’s legal and what’s ethical?

Because of the importance of being able to exchange information about political candidates and public figures, the law is designed to make it more difficult for public figures to sue for defamation, but what if, instead of suing for defamation, you have a conversation with the employer of the person whose speech you don’t like about whether their speech is ethical?

Bandy X. Lee, a psychiatrist who used to work at Yale University, published a tweet back in January of 2020 when Donald J. Trump was facing an impeachment trial. His attorney, Alan M. Dershowitz, came under fire for his connections to Jeffrey Epstein, who had been accused of sex trafficking. Mr. Dershowitz said he and his wife enjoyed a “perfect sex life,” and Dr. Lee pointed out that the use of the word “perfect” suggested Mr. Dershowitz was under a “shared psychosis” with his client, Mr. Trump, who also likes to use the word “perfect” a lot.

Dr. Lee had also pointed out that much of Mr. Trump’s language suggested his mental health was not quite stable, but Mr. Dershowitz was the one who reached out to Yale about Dr. Lee’s tweet. He claimed she had diagnosed him without even meeting him, which was allegedly unethical and unprofessional. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Lee said John Krystal, the chairman of Yale’s psychiatry department, reached out to her about the tweet, saying it made him question whether she was fit to continue teaching at the university.

A little later, Dr. Krystal met with Dr. Lee, saying she had “diagnosed” Mr. Dershowitz, and in doing so, had committed a breach of ethics.

But Dr. Lee says she never made a formal diagnosis of either Mr. Trump or Mr. Dershowitz. Instead, she claims she was merely alerting the public to what she saw as indicators of potential mental health problems. Given the public nature of each man’s position, Dr. Krystal maintains she spoke out in an effort to protect the public, as is her constitutional right under the first amendment.

In May of 2020, Yale decided not to renew Dr. Lee’s position with them (the first time since 2003 Dr. Lee’s position has not been renewed), and Dr. Lee responded by suing the university for violating her first amendment rights. She says she’s afraid the university’s decision to terminate her position as a result of her tweet will silence other professionals and intellectuals who might want to speak up about any disturbing behavior they notice in political candidates and other public figures going forward.

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