(New York, N.Y.)– The uproar over remarks by Columbia University Medical Center Professor Jeffrey Lieberman is entirely understandable, and bears many of the hallmarks of free speech controversies in recent years.  Professor Lieberman’s tweet regarding Nyakim Gatwech, the American fashion model of South Sudanese descent, was objectifying, and even he later acknowledged it as both sexist and racist.  It referred to an individual as if she were an object, invoking dehumanizing tropes that have been used historically to oppress women and racial groups.  For someone in a position of authority and sensitivity to express themselves with an egregious lapse of conscientiousness has sparked justifiable outrage among colleagues in the profession and beyond.

Yet, unless there is evidence that this lone tweet was a manifestation of more pervasive patterns of sexist or racist conduct or speech, it should not be the basis for Dr. Lieberman losing his job.  While those who know him will be the most accurate judges of his sincerity, Dr. Lieberman made what came across as an immediate, forthright and forceful apology, evincing awareness that his comment revealed a need for significant education and self-reflection going forward.  A single, ill-conceived tweet should not be the basis for judging the ability of a professional to continue carrying out their duties with the support and confidence of their colleagues and institution.  For Columbia University Medical Center to take a pause to evaluate the situation, hear out stakeholders and assess next steps is appropriate. Absent additional evidence of bias, discrimination or a willful inability to exercise the level of conscientiousness demanded in his position, career-altering disciplinary action for a lone tweet is a step too far.

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