The Boston Phoenix
June 29 - July 6, 2000


The Muzzle Awards, continued

by Dan Kennedy

Crushing dissent -- and academic freedom

At a fundraising strategy session last November, William Meyers, a respected liver surgeon who headed the surgery department at UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester, engaged in a frank discussion with two financial donors. As reported by the Worcester Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix, Meyers talked about the tension that existed between hospital administrators and doctors, and the role of managed care in aggravating those tensions.

As it turned out, Meyers's candor would cost him his job.

Days later, he was summoned by Peter Levine, a fellow physician who is the CEO of UMass Memorial. Levine told Meyers he was firing him for making a "discrediting remark." Meyers responded that he would fight. That, in turn, led to a settlement several weeks later in which Meyers agreed to resign for what was presumably a hefty severance package.

Ordinarily, a person does not have the right to criticize his employer and remain employed. Meyers, however, occupied an unusual position at the crossroads of free speech and private employment. Like all clinical-department chairs at UMass Memorial, Meyers was also a member of the faculty at UMass Medical School. As part of the academic community, Meyers had, or should have had, the academic freedom to speak openly without fear of reprisal. Yet, because of the 1998 merger of the public UMass Medical Center, a teaching hospital, with the private Memorial Hospital, Meyers was also the employee of a semi-private institution, one that critics say has become increasingly corporate in its struggle to navigate the perilous financial waters of modern health care.

By some accounts, Meyers was a rigid, unyielding man who, in being dismissed, finally got a taste of the pain he himself had dispensed to underlings. Nevertheless, his expertise was never questioned, and his departure left a clear message to other staff members. "People are afraid," one surgeon told the Phoenix. "They worry, if someone like Meyers can be forced out, who will be next?"

Like many free-speech dilemmas, this one bears the co-signature of a powerful person who should have stood on principle and instead ended up going along to get along. In this case, the statement announcing Meyers's resignation was signed not just by Peter Levine but also by Aaron Lazare, chancellor of the UMass Medical School. As a university official, Lazare should have challenged Levine and fought for Meyers's academic freedom. Instead, he took the easy way out, locking arms with Levine "to secure our missions . . . and to initiate healing from harm."

The ugly truth is that the harm comes not from Meyers's outspoken ways, but from the administration's willingness to abandon the traditional academic commitment to free expression.

Way too much order in this court

No one denies that Scott Huminski is litigious, difficult, and a bit of an eccentric. A resident of Bennington, Vermont, he considers himself a "citizen reporter," publishing his work on large signs that adorn his house and his van.

On May 24, Huminski pulled into a parking space at the Rutland District Courthouse, his vehicle emblazoned with this message: JUDGE CORSONES: BUTCHER OF THE CONSTITUTION. The sign listed five cases in which he believed Nancy Corsones had acted in an unconstitutional manner.

If Huminski's sign had been an editorial in the Rutland Herald, it's not likely that court authorities would have even taken official notice of it. But because its author was powerless and acting alone, the judicial book was thrown at him. First, Corsones had him removed from court property. Then, Judge Patricia Zimmerman issued an order barring Huminski from "all lands and property under the control of the Supreme Court and the Commissioner of Buildings and General Services, including the Rutland District Court, parking areas and lands."

For life.

As Associated Press writer David Gram observed: "With that order still in place, it's unclear how Huminski would be brought to court to face charges if he violated it."

The case has attracted the attention of free-speech organizations such as the Freedom Forum and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. "It is hard to say exactly what provoked this extreme action by the Rutland judges," wrote Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman, in an essay on the case. "Huminski had not engaged in any disruptive behavior. He had not threatened anyone. He had not engaged in picketing. He had not uttered any obscene or vulgar language or `fighting words.' He had not interfered in any way with the administration of justice. All he had done was criticize public officials, a revered tradition in our democracy and fully protected by the First Amendment."

It would appear that Huminski will win, and win easily. Robert Corn-Revere, a prominent First Amendment lawyer who has taken on Huminski's case, told McMasters, "I find the government's actions simply astonishing. I can think of no judicial authority to support it."

But even when such ludicrous orders are overturned, the winner's victory remains incomplete. If and when Huminski finally returns to the courtroom, he will do so after having been harassed and intimidated for doing nothing other than exercising his First Amendment rights. Next time, he'll think twice. Thus will Zimmerman's abusive order continue to have its effect.

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Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

1998 Muzzle Awards
1999 Muzzle Awards