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A professor is suing the Mayo Clinic medical school after a department chair threatened to fire him following a CNN interview in which he criticized the National Institutes of Health for not backing a COVID-19 treatment and a New York Times interview in which he said testosterone improves athletic performance.

Dr. Michael J. Joyner, an anesthesiology professor, filed the lawsuit Monday in a Minnesota state court in Olmsted County against the Mayo Clinic, Mayo’s College of Medicine and Science, Dr. Gianrico Farrugia and Dr. Carlos B. Mantilla.

Dr. Farrugia is Mayo Clinic’s president and chief executive officer. Dr. Mantilla is the chair of the anesthesiology and perioperative medicine department who threatened Dr. Joyner’s job in a letter that thrice brought up Dr. Joyner’s use of “idiomatic” language.

That included Dr. Joyner telling CNN he was frustrated with the NIH’s “bureaucratic rope-a-dope” and calling NIH’s guidelines a “wet blanket” discouraging doctors from trying convalescent plasma on immunocompromised COVID-19 patients. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech organization, published Dr. Mantilla’s letter earlier this year.

Dr. Joyner’s lawsuit says that, the day after CNN published that January article, “Mayo initiated a disciplinary process against Joyner for his interview comments because they criticized the NIH, and Mayo administrators were worried that NIH would retaliate by cutting their funding.”

“In his 36 years at the Mayo Clinic, Joyner had participated in hundreds of media interviews without incident,” the suit says. “Yet in March 2023, Mayo disciplined Joyner for media interview statements regarding his own research and conclusions. Joyner’s punishment included a one-week unpaid suspension, denial of any salary increase at his next annual review, and the threat of termination for failure to comply with the Mayo Public Affairs (‘PA’) Department’s preclearance and oversight of any media interviews. These sanctions represent a direct and ongoing attack on Joyner’s academic freedom.”

Dr. Joyner is asking for monetary damages and an order that the defendants “cease their retaliation and interference with Joyner’s communication about his research.” The Academic Freedom Alliance says it’s funded all of Dr. Joyner’s legal expenses to this point.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, the Mayo Clinic said Dr. Joyner had also been disciplined back in 2020. It said there was a “reasonable expectation that he remedy his lack of professionalism and mutual respect for others.”

“Mayo Clinic did not discipline Dr. Joyner for statements he made about testosterone or transgender athletes,” the statement said. “Mayo disciplined Dr. Joyner for continuing to treat coworkers unprofessionally in violation of Mayo policy and for making unprofessional comments about the National Institute(s) of Health’s (NIH) guidelines for convalescent plasma. Dr. Joyner’s comments about the NIH were not the expression of a scientific opinion, as is protected by our academic freedom policy. Instead, his comments were the unprofessional venting of his personal frustration with the NIH’s decision not to recommend a therapy he had championed.”