Complaints leveled against a medical doctor with the University of Montana’s physician training program for spreading misinformation about the COVID pandemic — among other inflammatory comments — have prompted discussions about freedom of speech.
Dr. Justin Buls has been subject to “timeouts” on Facebook for spreading misinformation regarding the COVID pandemic and calling for Dr. Anthony Fauci to be “executed for the crimes he has committed on humanity,” as first reported by the Daily Montanan.
At one point, Buls’ profile picture on Facebook displayed a swastika made of syringe needles.
In several of his posts he likens mask requirements in schools to child abuse. At least four of his posts within the last year have been flagged by fact checkers for false or partly false information.
In one post from August, Buls shared a YouTube video of a cardiologist testifying before a Senate committee in Texas who said there is no reason for healthy people under 50 years old or those who have recovered from COVID to be vaccinated against the virus. The post was flagged by independent fact checkers for including false information.
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"Mandating a vaccine that doesn't prevent infection and doesn't prevent transmission has nothing to do with science. Mandating masks in schools, when the science for 30 years has shown masks don't stop the spread of respiratory viruses is not about science. This is all about politics and control," Buls wrote on Oct. 26. "Attacking doctors for speaking up and supporting peoples' freedom and medical autonomy is not ok."
Buls is employed by the university through its Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana program as the Kalispell site director. The program is affiliated with the University of Washington’s Wyoming-Washington-Alaska-Montana-Idaho Family Medicine Residency Network. There are six resident students based in Kalispell, according to program director Dr. Rob Stenger.
“The Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana and the University of Montana do not endorse the personal views contained in Dr. Buls’ social media posts," UM spokesman Dave Kuntz said in a statement to the Missoulian.
"We do not support any form of public intimidation, threats against public or private individuals or the use of hate speech or other symbols associated with anti-Semitism or white supremacy,” he added.
“We expect our faculty, staff and physicians-in-training to act professionally in all settings and to provide health care in accordance with the best available scientific evidence,” the statement continued.
Kuntz is not aware of any investigation into Buls' comments, he said.
Dr. Frederick Chen, the director of the Family Medicine Residency Network at the University of Washington, distanced the program from the opinions expressed by Buls on Facebook, telling the Missoulian that it “unequivocally follows” guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in terms of vaccine efficacy and mask use.
Although the Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana is affiliated with the University of Washington, it does not have authority over Buls’ employment status, Chen said.
“His opinions expressed through Facebook and by any other means regarding the effectiveness of vaccines and masking are solely his own, and in no way reflect the beliefs of the WWAMI Family Medicine Residency Network,” Chen said.
Buls did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
This is at least the second time this semester that UM has had to navigate complaints against an employee for inflammatory comments they made online.
Earlier this semester, the university launched a Title IX investigation into then-computer science professor Rob Smith’s controversial blog. Smith resigned from his position before the investigation was completed.
Before Smith departed, students rallied outside of Main Hall and called for the university to fire Smith or for him to resign. Hand-designed signs displayed slogans of “fire Rob Smith” and “when will justice be served?”
But firing public employees, which include those at UM, for speech is a complicated process.
“The First Amendment protects the state from squashing people’s free speech rights, that’s why we’re different from private employers,” said Lucy France, legal counsel for UM. “With that being said, a public employer is still an employer and we retain the ability to restrict what employees say and do when it relates to their particular jobs in the workplace.”
Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Though there is no legal definition of hate speech, the American Library Association says that it is any form of expression in which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate or incite hatred against a group or class of people based on race, religion, skin color, gender or sexual identity, ethnicity, disability or national origin.
Rather than focusing on whether the speech is inflammatory, universities focus on the context of the speech. From there, they examine whether the employee is speaking in their official capacity or as a private citizen and whether the speech addresses a matter of private interest or public concern.
“This analysis really also depends on the employee and the employee's duties and responsibilities," France said. "A faculty member, for example, has pretty broad duties and responsibilities in terms of research, scholarship and service. So there is a much broader ability for a faculty member to promote ideas.”
When it comes to faculty sharing misinformation online that undermines their line of work or study, France said she’d likely focus on whether the speech is a matter of public concern.
The university examines the context of the speech in an effort to protect the rights of everyone involved and follow existing laws and policies. If those steps are overlooked, it could backfire with a wrongful termination lawsuit or other legal action.
“We are really proactive and make sure that we respect everybody’s individual rights and when those conflict we navigate that with those in mind,” France said.