Dr. Allan Josephson, a former professor from the University of Louisville, who was removed from the university for his comments on gender dysphoria is currently suing the university for violating his free speech rights, and he is being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF senior counsel Travis Barham joins Dr. Josephson on Family Policy Matters this week.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. The intent of most universities is to be beacons of intellectual freedom and diversity, but unfortunately, at times, our institutions of higher education have become decreasingly tolerant and less intellectually diverse, as more traditional and conservative perspectives are marginalized, or sometimes silenced all together.
Well, our guest today is a professor who is bearing the brunt of this cultural shift. His name is Dr. Allan Josephson. He joined the University of Louisville in 2003 as chief of the university’s then-struggling Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychology. Over the next 15 years, the Division—led by Dr. Josephson—saw a remarkable turnaround, earning the Division a national reputation and Dr. Josephson perfect marks in his 2014, 2015 and 2016 personnel reviews. In 2017, Dr. Josephson participated in a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation regarding the treatment of youth experiencing gender dysphoria. As a result of outcry from several university staff and faculty who disagreed with Dr. Josephson’s views, he was demoted from his long-held position, and eventually the university declined to renew his contract. In March of 2019, Dr. Josephson filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Louisville for violating his First Amendment rights, and he’s being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom.
Today we’re pleased to be joined by Dr. Josephson and ADF Senior Counsel, Travis Barham, to talk about the case.
Gentlemen, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
TRAVIS BARHAM: Thank you very much.
DR. JOSEPHSON: Good to be with you.
TRACI GRIGGS: Dr. Josephson, let’s start with you. Could you give us some insight into your academic and professional background, particularly your knowledge and work in the area of gender dysphoria?
DR. JOSEPHSON: Well, I’m a psychiatrist and that means I’m a physician that’s practiced over 40 years. My study has often involved the family problems of my patients, and the relationship of those problems to psychiatric disorders. When I began this work, gender dysphoria was extremely rare, almost unheard of. But I am increasingly, in my work, seeing families in distress and sorely in need of treatment and help for their confusion in this regard.
TRACI GRIGGS: What were the circumstances surrounding your participation in that Heritage Foundation panel?
DR. JOSEPHSON: Well, I had made a couple of comments in different settings. I guess this was heard by the people at Heritage, and the leaders were very interested in what I had to say. I, and several colleagues, were invited to a panel to speak to what they call “the other side.” It was clear that many researchers and clinicians had various biases in this regard, and they just wanted a broad perspective on this.
TRACI GRIGGS: Were there particular things that you said that were considered so controversial or enraging?
DR. JOSEPHSON: You know, I struggle when I’m asked that question because I don’t think there were particular things. I think the idea that I would raise any question about what I would call the transgender dogma, insulted them. In actual fact, I simply argued from existing research in my experience that when children have gender dysphoria, medical professionals should first seek to understand the psychological and developmental issues that accompany this condition. We should explore things before an ID is immediately affirmed or agreed, and this should be done before pursuing any more aggressive or life-altering treatments such as hormonal treatments or surgery. We need to ask better questions. And that was controversial.
TRACI GRIGGS: So were you surprised then at what happened after you participated in that panel?
DR. JOSEPHSON: Surprised would be a mild word; I would say it was stunning. I don’t want to sound self-aggrandizing here, but I’ve been very successful for 15 years. Yet almost immediately, the university took issue and I was removed from my leadership position.
TRAVIS BARHAM: The other thing that was interesting about all of this was just the university’s rush to judgment. I mean, Dr. Josephson spoke in October and by the end of November, the university had demoted him. They didn’t even give him a chance to work through whatever issues had arisen. They just rushed to judgment, and then demoted him simply because a few people were upset at what he had said.
TRACI GRIGGS: Dr. Josephson, were you disappointed then in the way that the university reacted to this whole case?
DR. JOSEPHSON: I was stunned by their administrative behavior. I did not even have a personal meeting with leaders about the decision. I just received a note in the mail, and as Mr. Barham mentioned, just a rush to judgment with very little consideration. At a theoretical level, really, our universities should be better, and they’re meant to be a place where one can discuss these things. But in my experience that was not possible, and I was deeply damaged in terms of my career by this. It took various things away from me. As I left the university, I wasn’t able to, in an appropriate way, say goodbye to people, or have my work recognized the way it typically happens if you give yourself to a career. I just went away silently. My family worried, and my wife in particular was under great stress, and then that secondarily stressed me. So those things were all difficult, but I can say that the work of Mr. Barham and his colleagues at ADF has been of enormous help, and we’ve teamed together to try to develop a plan to address my specific problem, but also address problems that young faculty will face in the future in this area.
TRACI GRIGGS: Travis, talk a little bit about that. What are the legal questions at stake in this case?
TRAVIS BARHAM: This case is about a very fundamental and very basic principle, and that is that tolerance should be a two-way street. As Dr. Josephson mentioned, universities are supposed to be a marketplace of ideas where different viewpoints can be debated and discussed. They’re not supposed to be an assembly line for one type of thought, and that’s what’s happened here. Here, Dr. Josephson expressed an opinion on how to treat patients. That is the calling, that is the hallmark of academic medicine: to debate different treatment plans for patients and find out what serves the interest of patients best. Public colleges simply have no business trying to demote people—trying to harass them—simply because they hold different views than their colleagues or the administration.
TRACI GRIGGS: Just playing devil’s advocate, does the university not have the freedom to decide whose contracts they will renew and whose contracts they will allow to expire? What did they violate here?
TRAVIS BARHAM: In some cases perhaps, but here what happened was Dr. Josephson had been serving for 15 years at the university, and as soon as he said something that some people didn’t like, the university took disciplinary action. They demoted him, they harassed him for a year, they subjected him to a hostile and humiliating work environment, and then they decided they weren’t going to renew his contract. All of that is related to the fact that they didn’t like what he said. There are basic First Amendment principles at stake here; the notion that the government cannot punish people simply because it doesn’t like what they say. In the academic context, speaking with conservative groups, or holding conservative views, should not be a disqualification from academic service. For example, we had a case just a few years ago in North Carolina where a sociologist was denied a promotion because his colleagues didn’t like what he said. This is Dr. Adams over at UNC-Wilmington. The case took seven years! A jury deliberated for two or three hours and then issued a verdict in favor of Dr. Adams, saying that the university had no business denying him a promotion simply because they didn’t like what he said. And that’s the same principle that’s at stake here. Professors shouldn’t have to fear for their careers when they accept speaking opportunities. They shouldn’t have to fear for their careers simply because they hold views that some people don’t like.
TRACI GRIGGS: So is this case specific to employees at universities, or could it have an impact on students as well?
TRAVIS BARHAM: The case primarily focuses on professors at public universities, but it has implications more broadly. What happened to Dr. Josephson has implications more broadly to students and others. I mean think about it, if a professor of his seniority can be demoted, harassed and then effectively fired, simply because he said something that other people don’t like, what kind of chilling effect will that have on a student who’s just starting out? The lesson to that student is keep your views to yourself, don’t express your views. That’s not the function of a university, that’s not why people go to the university. People go to a university to be able to share other ideas, debate ideas, question the consensus, and come up with better alternatives. If a university can punish a professor this way, especially a professor of Dr. Josephson’s seniority, then it has a vast chilling effect both for other professors, and even for students.
TRACI GRIGGS: So this is a free speech case too, not a religious liberty case. What is the difference between those two? Sometimes I think we get them kind of tangled up.
TRAVIS BARHAM: Well the two are often related, but in this case, Dr. Josephson spoke at a conference off-campus, and he spoke about what is the best way of treating patients who are suffering from a particular medical condition. And he spoke about it from a scientific perspective. So this wasn’t a religious-based argument; it was just from his scientific and psychiatric experience, what is the best way of treating patients with this condition? And the First Amendment’s free speech clause protects the professor’s ability to express those kinds of viewpoints without having to fear for his career. When Dr. Josephson spoke at the Heritage Foundation, he spoke based on what he understood as a psychiatrist, as a clinician, and based on his years of research and experience counseling patients. That is where the issue should be engaged. People should have the honesty to engage Dr. Josephson based on what he said, based on the scientific principles that he articulated, based on the common practices in the psychiatric field—understanding what a patient is experiencing before you are rushed to prescribe treatment. Any effort to try to mischaracterize that, or question his motives, is fundamentally dishonest, and should just be recognized as such.
TRACI GRIGGS: Gender dysphoria is something that we hear in the news a lot. The discussion on this is being shut down. Is this harmful?
DR. JOSEPHSON: It‘s extremely harmful to parents and children, and it’s hurting lots and lots of people. The fact that it is shut down is, of course, the basis of our lawsuit and universities should not function this way. Universities increasingly are responding to other voices outside of academia about what they should and shouldn’t do, and that’s not how science proceeds.
TRAVIS BARHAM: It’s not how science proceeds and it’s not how higher education functions. When universities silence debate—specifically when they target certain viewpoints and those who express them for disciplinary action or punitive actions—they violate a core principle of their function in society, and a core reason for their existence. And they also violate the First Amendment, which is the focus of our case. But it also just goes against the entire ethos of public education.
TRACI GRIGGS: I wonder if I can ask Dr. Josephson, be a little more specific about how the shutting down of this dialogue is hurting parents and children.
DR. JOSEPHSON: It’s hurting in several ways. One is they’re getting just one message from clinicians that when a child has a feeling that they’re the gender opposite to their biological sex, they must be affirmed in this idea. That’s the only thing they’re hearing, and of course it troubles many parents. So after the Heritage speech, I’ve had numerous calls from parents from throughout the country who literally are saying, “Help, help me with my child because this doesn’t make sense to me.” For the educated lay-person, very little of this makes sense to them. And so I’ve tried to answer these questions as specifically as I can, and the parents just need informed information. So when a university is shut down and doesn’t provide a broad view, parents literally don’t know where to turn.
TRACI GRIGGS: We’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go Travis Barham, where can our listeners go to learn more about this case?
TRAVIS BARHAM: Certainly, they can go to Alliance Defending Freedom’s website, adflegal.org, and they’ll learn all sorts of details about the case there.
TRACI GRIGGS: Dr. Allan Josephson and Travis Barham, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.
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