Northwestern University has recently attracted attention for the attempts to silence a controversial medical journal it publishes called Atrium. I’ve previously criticized Northwestern for its failure to protect academic freedom in cases of sexual content. Sadly, the efforts to suppress Atrium seem to be part of a disturbing pattern.
Last year, Northwestern professor Alice Dreger, author of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search For Justice in Science, was the guest editor of an issue of Atrium called “Bad Girls.” Northwestern administrators demanded censorship of Atrium’s website because of an article by Syracuse University professor William Peace about oral sex between nurses and disabled patients in the 1970s. Dreger noted, “Through this censorship my dean’s office put me in the position of either staying silent and being a hypocrite or calling out my own dean on censorship.” After a long battle, Northwestern finally allowed the article to be posted after Dreger announced that she was going public about the suppression of the article. Dreger said, “After 14 months, the only thing that moved them is PR fear. If PR fear is what drives them as an institution, that’s sad.”
Dreger told the Huffington Post about the Northwestern administration, “They said, ‘We paid for it, so we get to say what’s in it.’” That sentiment of “he who pays the piper calls the tune” is fundamentally antithetical to academic freedom. By that logic, any research that any professor publishes could be subjected to prior review by the administration.
But as bad as it was for Northwestern to ban online publication of an article for more than a year, the latest actions taken by the administration are even worse.
Katie Watson, the editor of Atrium, said medical school administrators told her she must allow a “vetting committee” to review her editorial choices “and veto them if they were perceived to conflict with other institutional interests.” Watson said, “Approximately a week after this vetting committee told me what I would, and would not, be allowed to publish, I canceled the issue.” Watson told the Huffington Post that she is “not moving forward with the publication under that condition.”
Northwestern issued a statement that “The magazine now has an editorial board of faculty members and others, as is customary for academic journals.” That is customary, and it is unusual that Watson was the sole editorial person until now. But there’s nothing wrong with that, and it certainly is questionable that an editorial board was appointed solely in response to a controversial article. And it is highly unusual for any editorial board of a medical journal to include a PR person from the university.
The purpose of an editorial board is to set broad policies for a publication, and to help support its goals. But an editorial board of an academic magazine is not a “vetting committee” designed to silence controversial articles.
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone has noted, “An advisory board that considers the academic quality of proposed publications is commonplace and appropriate. An advisory board that considers other factors, such as whether a proposed article might offend donors to the institution or expresses views that the institution does not want expressed, would constitute censorship that is incompatible with academic freedom.”
An editorial board shouldn’t scrutinize individual articles selected for publication, and it certainly isn’t created for the purpose of stopping controversial work. Then it’s no longer an editorial board, it’s a censorship board. And that’s exactly what Northwestern administrators have done with Atrium.