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University of Minnesota general counsel Mark Rotenberg is catching fallout over his apparent attempts to limit attacks on the school’s research program. In 2003, 26-year-old Dan Markingson committed suicide during a clinical trial conducted at the university. Eight professors and bioethicists, including Carl Elliot, submitted a letter in November of last year asking the board of regents for an independent investigation into his death. Elliott criticized the university for enrolling Markingson in the study and for how doctors conducted the trial in an article he wrote for Mother Jones magazine. The regents denied the faculty’s request February 7, after they discussed the request with Rotenberg. On February 24, Rotenberg asked the university’s Academic Freedom and Tenure committee to consider whether factually incorrect attacks on particular faculty research activities were protected by academic freedom. “The question is absurd on its face, since it assumes exactly what academic freedom exists to protect, namely, free inquiry into what the facts are, whether about faculty work at the University of Minnesota or anywhere else,” says Brian Leiter in an e-mail to CorpCounsel.com. Leiter is a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and director of the school’s Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values. Leiter says that although academic freedom doesn’t protect defamation, it is not up to the GC or the university to determine whether statements are defamatory. That’s up to the courts, says Leiter, and no such determination has been made. “So the question is pernicious and outrageous,” says Leiter. “The general counsel of a university should be standing up for the freedom of researchers to investigate controversial matters, even controversial matters at the university itself.” The university declined to comment. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education , Rotenberg defended the question he put before the committee. “The faculty, as a collective body, should take an interest in attacks on their members that serve to deter or chill controversial research,” said Rotenberg. For some faculty members at the university, the committee’s consideration of Rotenberg’s question was troubling. Naomi Scheman, a professor of philosophy and the president of Minnesota’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, told T he Chronicle of Higher Education that the question was inappropriate for Rotenberg to ask and inappropriate for the committee to discuss. After reading minutes from the committee’s first meeting to consider Rotenberg’s inquiry, Scheman wrote to Elliot that the “committee’s last meeting seemed to be presuming that the claims made against the researchers were false.” She wrote, “The committee cannot work on that highly prejudicial presumption. It is precisely what is at issue in the case.”

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