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.