Former Yale Professor Bandy Lee Sues University Over Termination

I have long been an out-spoken critic of Dr. Bandy Lee, a former faculty member in the School of Medicine and Yale Law School, who has made bizarre and unprofessional statements about the mental fitness of not just former president Donald Trump but his supporters. A favorite expert of MSNBC, Lee never disappointed hosts in declaring that Trump and his supporters are mentally ill and dangerous.  I was one of the first to call out Lee for violating the “Goldwater Rule” in such public diagnosis as she and others laid the foundation for a 25th Amendment removal of Trump within a year of his taking office. After numerous columns denouncing her, I should be relieved by the termination of Lee at Yale, as detailing in her recent  complaint, but free speech and academic freedom tend to make all such controversies more difficult. I actually have serious concerns about the termination.

      Lee and others like Richard Painter warned that Trump was mentally unstable and would likely lead to violent acts or war. Of course, those predictions proved to be wrong like many others presented breathlessly on MSNBC or Salon.  Lee warned about Trump effectively brainwashing people and that figures like Alan Dershowitz were warped by a “shared psychosis” including sexual delusions.Painter, Norm Eisen, George Conway, and others hammered away at Trump’s mental illness — using the diagnosis of Lee and others to make their case. It was precisely what the profession sought to prevent as unethical under the Goldwater Rule. As previously discussed, the use of alleged mental unfitness is a common avenue for attacking one’s opponents in authoritarian countries like Iran, Russia and China. It is also nothing new in the area of presidential politics.  The most serious such abuse occurred in 1964 when Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona ran against Lyndon Johnson.With the help of the media, Goldwater was portrayed as a war monger hell bent on nuclear war, a claim powerfully depicted in the “daisy countdown” commercial showing a child counting down to an atomic explosion with flower petals. Such commercials, however, were not enough for Fact Magazine, which decided to issue a special hit job on Goldwater. The magazine sent out 12,356 letters to psychiatrists asking if they thought Goldwater was mentally ill. Only 2,417 responded, but a majority of those responding stated categorically that Goldwater was unfit due to mental illness, a manifestly unethical conclusion reached without evaluating Goldwater personally. 
    Goldwater was diagnosed as a “megalomaniac,” paranoid,” “grossly psychotic,” and, in what is now being raised against Trump, someone suffering from “narcissistic personality disorder.” Some doctors reached incredible insights into a man who they never spoke to, including one who said that “inwardly a frightened person who sees himself as weak and threatened by strong virile power around him.” That is all the magazine needed to proclaim across the front page, “Fact: 1,189 psychiatrists say Goldwater is psychologically unfit to be president!” Goldwater lost by a landslide, despite the fact that there is no evidence that he actually suffered from such mental illness. In response, the American Psychiatric Association adopted the “Goldwater Rule” to bar doctors from making such unethical diagnoses of individuals without evaluating them. It appears that ethics, like constitutional principles, are more often honored in the breach in both politics and psychology.I previously wrote about the dispute with Dershowitz and, while saying that Lee was going harm to her profession and school, raised concerns over the push for termination:

     Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz has reportedly complained to Yale University after Lee suggested that he, and Trump supporters, display a “shared psychosis” with the president. Dershowitz triggered commentary when, in defense of allegations that he had sex with underaged girls during his association with child molester Jeffrey Epstein, he insisted that he had a “perfect sex life.” (Dershowitz is being sued by a woman who said she was forced by Epstein to have sex with him. It is one of a number of lawsuits currently pending against Dershowitz who has always maintained his innocence). As shown in dozens of prior columns, I oppose efforts to get academics punished or fired at their institutions out of concern for free speech and academic freedom. However, I agree with Dershowitz that Lee’s weaponizing psychiatric evaluations in this political debate is inimical to her school and her profession.

This controversy began with a statement on January 2 by University of Minnesota Law Professor Richard Painter. Painter is the former chief White House ethics lawyer in George W. Bush administration and I have been critical of his views on professed crimes and impeachable offenses by Trump as unsupported and unreasonable. It is not surprising to find an alliance with Lee in such comments so, when Painter noted that Dershowitz sounded quite Trumpian in claiming that he has “a perfect, perfect sex Life.”

That triggered Lee who promptly gave her signature shoot-from-the-hip psychiatric analysis:

“Alan Dershowitz’s employing the odd use of ‘perfect’—not even a synonym—might be dismissed as ordinary influence in most contexts. However, given the severity and spread of ‘shared psychosis’ among just about all of Donald Trump’s followers, a different scenario is more likely. There is even proof: his bravado toward his opponent with a question about his own sex life—in a way that is irrelevant to the actual lawsuit—shows the same grandiosity and delusional-level impunity . . . Also identical is the level of lack of empathy, of remorse, and of consideration of consequences (until some accountability comes from the outside—at which time he is likely to lash out equally).”

Dershowitz understandably objected to that outrageous and unprofessional analysis. He said that Lee was declaring “me as psychotic for defending Trump’s constitutional rights.” Dershowitz correctly points out that Lee’s “diagnosis” was based on his use of one of the most commonly words used in the English language:

“Publicly offering “professional opinions” or diagnoses in the absence of a psychiatric examination, is a violation of psychiatric ethics and the rules of the American Psychiatric Association,” he argued. “Dr. Lee has a history of such unethical conduct. She previously diagnosed President Trump as being psychotic. Now she is doubling down accusing me of having a ‘shared psychosis’ with President Trump, and having ‘wholly taken on Trump’s symptoms by contagion . . . She also believes that my use of the word ‘perfect’ — the same word used by Donald Trump in describing his phone call to the Ukrainian President — is evidence of a ‘shared’ psychosis. She does not mention that I used the word ‘perfect’ in the context of rebutting the false accusations against me and proclaiming, quite truthfully, that I have never had sex with any woman other than my wife, since the day I met Jeffrey Epstein . . . I used the word ‘perfect’ in reference to my fidelity during the period in which I was falsely accused, just as someone might say she had a ‘perfect’ attendance record. Moreover, Dr. Lee neglects to mention that the interview during which I used that word took place months before President Trump used it. I guess she believes he caught the contagion from me.”

That response was complete and unassailable in my view. That is where I would have left it rather than go to the school.

In January 2020, Yale reportedly went ahead and terminated Lee.That has led supporters like Painter to denounce the university on MSNBC for violating free speech and insisting the problem is the Goldwater Rule, not Lee.

Lee got more and more sensational in feeding an insatiable appetite on CNN, MSNBC, and various newspapers.  She declared Trump as worst than Hitler: “Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. At least Hitler improved the daily life of his followers, had discipline, and required more of himself to gain the respect of his followers. Even with the same pathology, there are varying degrees of competence.”

As one of the chief voices calling for removal under the 25th Amendment, Painter admits “Nuclear war did not come, so our worst fears never came to be.” However, he insists that the problem is the Goldwater Rule and the ethical rule against diagnosing people in public without any personal evaluation or credible basis. Notably, MSNBC ran Painter’s column but not any acknowledgment of its own role in such unethical use of psychiatric evaluations. Indeed, Painter and a large number of academics have not expressed any sense of responsibility or regret in such sensational and unprofessional declarations by Lee or others in her field. Moreover, Painter has called for the disbarment of conservative lawyers, including United States senators, for voicing their own views of the election and possible fraud.

I have no problem with Dershowitz filing a complaint with the American Psychiatric Association for an alleged unethical violation of its rules. However, Lee’s public statements were heavily intertwined with her political speech and academic views. She could have legitimately disagreement over the Goldwater Rule.  I happen to agree with the Rule but it is not beyond debate or disagreement.

The issue is a close one.  Lee did seem unethical in my view in declaring an individual to be mentally ill without any personal evaluation. Yet, I have been very critical of many lawyers who have made sweeping and unfounded declarations about crimes allegedly committed by Trump.

Former prosecutor and Washington Post columnist Randall D. Eliason insisted Trump committed bribery in the Ukraine scandal. It did not matter that the Supreme Court has roundly rejected such sweeping interpretations of bribery, extortion and related political corruption. Former CNN legal analyst and former House impeachment counsel Norm Eisen claimed in 2018 that, by not responding to Russian aggression, Trump was “colluding in plain sight” and the criminal case against him for obstruction of justice was “devastating.” Professor Richard Painter claimed a clear case for treason. Harvard professor Laurence Tribe declared Trump’s dictation of a misleading statement about the Trump Tower meeting constituted witness tampering; Tribe previously found compelling evidence of obstruction of justice, criminal election violations, Logan Act violations, extortion and possible treason by Trump or his family.

I believe that these legal declarations were as sensational and baseless as Lee’s psychiatric declarations. However, I would oppose any move to remove them for espousing such views.  Lee is in some ways helped by her reckless rhetoric, which was clearly motivated by her deep-seated animosity for Trump and his policies.  While media like MSNBC used her to suggest a professional diagnosis of mental illness, she was clearly engaging in political not professional speech.  That creates a concern over any termination for speech outside of the classroom or campus.

Moreover, Lee was open about doing so without any individual interaction with Trump. I would be interested in the specific conclusions of the Yale investigation. I am also curious why it took the Dershowitz letter to prompt action when Lee was widely criticized by many of us for years in the national media.  It was not Lee’s outrageous statements about Trump but her statement about Dershowitz that appeared to motivate the Yale faculty to act. Department head Dr. John Krystal told Lee that she had “breached psychiatric ethics by ‘diagnosing’” Dershowitz from afar and said that her “recklessness of your comments creates the appearance that they are self-serving in relation to your personal political beliefs and other possible personal aspirations.” Yet, both Trump and Dershowitz are public figures. The question is why Lee’s unhinged analysis of Trump for four years was not an equally pressing concern.

There is a distinction to be drawn when a doctor is offering a diagnosis of the mental fitness of a person without any ethical basis for such a diagnosis. These lawyers were basing their conclusions on available evidence.  They were wrong but they were offering their evaluation of the weight of the evidence. Declaring someone mentally ill cannot be reasonable done from a distance, particularly given the hyperbolic and unhinged rhetoric of Lee.

That is why this is a close question and why we need to know more about the findings of the Yale investigation. There is no indication that Lee was doing anything unprofessional in her classes or with patients. That creates a serious concern as to whether she was being punished for her political speech or a violation of school or professional rules of conduct.

141 thoughts on “Former Yale Professor Bandy Lee Sues University Over Termination”

  1. They deserve each other. Best course of action she sues the school and the students sue the professor. Students then sue the schools. Not like our tax money is going for something useful in these second rate loser institutions.

  2. The APA’s abuse of “the Goldwater rule” as a gag order cripples the nation’s ability to hold a president accountable for his mental unfitness. As we have seen. That mental unfitness has now caused about 550,000 unnecessary deaths.

  3. Were I a patient in the area in need of psychiatric services I would have avoided Yale, knowing what kind of incompetent and unethical psychiatrists they employ. Would you, as a patient, ever discuss your guns with Dr. Brandy X Lee?

    In New Haven, Yale has a major share of the market. This attitude, if shared by a non-trivial percentage of the population, would lead to an increase in untreated psychiatric conditions in the area which would ultimately cause knock-on societal effects.

    It’s a major problem for a medical institution to have a physician using their credentials to promote unhinged theories on national television. This is different than politicians who everybody already knows are lying scumbags – a comparison is not apt.

  4. According to Bandy Lee, the American Founders were mentally ill because they were exponentially farther to the right than President Donald J. Trump.

    When the Founders said freedom, they meant freedom.

    Maximal freedom for people while those very people comprise an infinitesimal government which is severely limited and restricted.

    They absolutely did not mean a centrally planned, means-of-production-controlled, wealth redistributed and socially engineered communist paradise.

  5. Everyone puts on a show when they are in public. Anyone trying to analyze from that will be wrong. Some people will act nicer than they actually are, and some will act just the opposite.

  6. Jonathan: Calling Trump a lunatic is not something that should get you fired. I mean Trump called the Speaker of the House “crazy Nancy” and nothing happened to him. Of course, Dr. Lee is in a different situation. As a psychiatrist or psychologist Dr. Lee has an obligation to follow the APA’s Goldwater Rule that bans doctors diagnosing anyone without evaluating them. You say Dr. Lee was “unethical” because she declared Trump mentally ill “without any personal evaluation”. Over the last four years thousands of psychologists and psychiatrists have evaluated Trump’s mental state and found him wanting in many respects–notwithstanding the Goldwater Rule. So why haven’t they also been fired? Back in 2018 John A. Frank, MD, and clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University ( your institution) published a book entitled “Trump on the Couch” in which he concluded, from hours of analysis, that Trump is “mentally unfit in ways that make him psychologically unsuited for the presidency”. Professor Frank didn’t have Trump literally “on the couch”. But considering Trump has been the almost daily center of our attention for over four years I think the “virtual” couch is just as good. We have all watched Trump’s news conferences, his speeches, his interviews on FoxNews, his rally’s and many other forums in which has lied pathologically about almost any subject. His lies about his father being born in Germany, his lies about climate change being a “Chinese hoax”, his lies that household disinfectants and hydroxychloroquine were effective against covid-19, and, of course, Trump’s latest lie–that the 2020 election was stolen from him by “massive election fraud”. Personally, I think Trump is a delusional narcissistic sociopath. But, hey, that’s just my opinion and that of thousands of psychologists and psychiatrists.

    Now if Trump were a member of my extended family he would never, I mean never, be invited for Thanksgiving, Christmas or a summer BBQ (when we can have them again). I know this because my wife has told me. I’m sure that’s probably the view of some who attended a wedding reception at Mar-a-Lago earlier this month where Trump spoke. Now normally anyone who speaks at a wedding reception starts by congratulating the newly weds. Not Trump. He got up and asked: “Do you miss me yet?”. Then he went on a tirade about Iran, China, the immigration crisis and how the election was stolen from him. Only at the end did Trump offer his congratulations to the bride and groom. Had this been my daughter or son’s wedding reception I would have stood up and told Trump to shut up and sit down! But, hey, that’s just me. I think Trump has been over the hill for a long time. I don’t need the medical experts to tell me what is in plain sight.

    1. Good lord. You know nothing about the mechanics of mental evaluation yet you bloviate for thousands of words. Spare us your sophomoric musings.

  7. She was misusing her unethical professional opinion for a political end. Not a close call for punishment in my opinion.

  8. Whence Ethics?

    Professional ethicists are not a reliable source of normative ethics.

    If you look at the AMA’s very good publications on medical ethics you will immediately be struck by the fact that a substantial majority of them actually come from law and that many of the relevant court cases are cited. They impose certain conduct on the profession not because the AMA restates the cases as Ethics but because the body of law in this country does.

    The Goldwater Rule is nicely put in the psychiatric guild publications but its claws come from the courtroom. Violation may invite legal liability.

    Under respondeat superior an employer may have to answer in court for the torts of his employee. If Dr. Lee spoke on her own as a psychiatrist she might have limited liability to herself, but she never seemed to fail to add prestige to her display by waving the Yale flag. Yale may have had some genuine legal concerns.

    Put in more homely terms what if Lee had caused injury while regularly driving an official Yale car while intoxicated? Breaking the Goldwater Rule while invoking Yale may not have been very different.

        1. Surely any calculation of legal peril would include the possibility that Lee would sue. Which she has.

      1. One usually tries to arrange things so one won’t be sued. One way for Yale might be to give Lee a ticket to another town. But, as I said below, the ethics matter might be just the best method of getting rid of a pain in the rear no matter what.

  9. Set the Goldwater Rule and Free Speech aside as issues and ask what a university may do when public statements reveal that a professor does not have sufficient grasp of important aspects of her profession to be trusted with teaching responsibilities.

    She has the right to say what she wants and if what she says reveals she is a loon the university should be able to dispense with her.

    Either that or accept that there is no moral or intellectual line below which an employee can sink without losing her office. Everything is allowed except, perhaps, saying All Lives Matter or There Are Two Sexes. Some things are too outrageous to be tolerated in academia.

  10. I wonder how everyone will react when psychiatrists start diagnosing Biden with dementia?

    Do you suppose the Goldwater Rule will suddenly become vitally important again?

    Practically a Twitter hanging offence at the least?

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