A prominent doctor is suing NYU Langone Health after he was fired as director of its cancer center over his social media postings about the Israel-Hamas war.
The lawsuit could propel NYU Langone — a major New York hospital — into the center of a national debate over how much power private institutions have to fire employees over their online postings.
Laws protecting employees from being fired for what they say or do outside of the office vary widely by state. In New York, the law is somewhat unclear, lawyers say. But as tensions and protests escalate over the violence in the Middle East, the issue of what sort of speech is protected or acceptable has roiled American businesses and campuses.
The wrongful termination lawsuit was brought by Dr. Benjamin Neel, a cancer biologist whose laboratory at NYU Langone conducts research on breast cancer, ovarian cancer and treatments for leukemia. Before he was fired, Dr. Neel had reposted a variety of anti-Hamas political cartoons, including two with offensive caricatures of Arab people, and messages on the social media platform X, like one that appeared to question the extent of the death toll in Gaza from Israel’s relentless bombing campaign.
He is far from the first person to lose his job over his public reactions to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, or Israel’s subsequent airstrikes and invasion of Gaza. Journalists have lost jobs, and law students have had job offers rescinded. Palestine Legal, an advocacy group, says it has received over 80 requests since Oct. 7 for help over people’s firings.
Multiple doctors have also lost their jobs or been suspended for statements about the war. At Johns Hopkins Hospital, a pediatric cardiologist was placed on leave after being accused of calling Palestinians “bloodthirsty morally depraved animals” in online postings, according to a news report. He later wrote his colleagues an apology for what he said were “regrettable, hurtful messages,” according to a local news report.
An emergency room doctor at Lenox Hill Hospital, on the Upper East Side, was fired after being accused of posting “Zionist settlers getting a taste of their own medicine” following the Oct. 7 attacks. The doctor declined to comment.
Dr. Neel is one of two doctors whom NYU Langone has removed for online postings since the war began last month. The first, Dr. Zaki Masoud, a trainee at NYU Langone’s hospital in Mineola, Long Island, was “removed from service,” according to the hospital, after he was accused of posting a message on Instagram in defense of the Hamas attack.
An online petition calling on the hospital to reverse course and reinstate Dr. Masoud has garnered 89,000 signatures. He could not be reached for comment.
Dr. Neel’s lawsuit, filed last week in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, claims that NYU Langone feared a backlash after firing Dr. Masoud and so decided to fire Dr. Neel as well — in an “ill-considered plan to feign the appearance of even-handedness.”
Dr. Neel claims that an executive vice president at the hospital told Dr. Neel that his online posts were “making it hard” to justify firing others, like Dr. Masoud. “Dr. Neel was offered up as a sacrificial lamb,” the suit claims.
Most of the social media posts at issue were reposts of political cartoons, according to the lawsuit. One of the cartoons takes aim at western defenders of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The cartoon shows a protest in which demonstrators are holding aloft signs justifying torture and rape. Another cartoon questions whether negotiating a two-state solution is viable with Hamas in power. Dr. Neel also shared a post questioning the accuracy of a list of approximately 7,000 people that the Hamas-run Health ministry in Gaza said had been killed during Israel’s bombing campaign.
Dr. Neel continues to be a tenured professor at NYU Langone Health and to oversee a laboratory, but he was terminated from his job as director of the hospital’s Perlmutter Cancer Center — resulting in his hospital pay being slashed by about two-thirds, his lawyer, Milton Williams, said.
Dr. Neel’s research has focused on the communication between healthy cells and “how this is disrupted in cancer,” his lawyer said. As director of the cancer center, he oversaw more than 1,000 employees, according to his lawyer.
The lawsuit claims that Dr. Neel was told his social media posts were deemed to be an “intentional breach” of NYU Langone’s Code of Conduct and Social Media Policy and that he failed to meet “the standards expected of a physician in a leadership role” and had hurt the hospital’s reputation.
“Several times since last month, we reminded all employees of our high standards, as well as our Code of Conduct and Social Media Policy,” NYU Langone said in a statement responding to the lawsuit. “Nonetheless, Dr. Ben Neel, as a leader at our institution, disregarded these standards in a series of public social media posts and later locked his Twitter/X account. NYU Langone stands by our decision and looks forward to defending it in court.”
Dr. Neel’s lawsuit claims that support for Israel is a component of his Jewish identity. NYU Langone’s decision to punish him for his online posts amounts to religious discrimination, the lawsuit claims.
In addition to accusing NYU Langone of discrimination, the lawsuit also claims that New York law protects workers from being fired for social media outside of work hours — a debatable proposition.
A few states, such as Connecticut, have restricted the ability of employers to fire employees for their opinions or speech. New York’s protections for workers are more limited, but one safeguard is a law that prohibits employers from firing people for “legal recreational activities.” The law, which began as a bill intended to protect cigarette smokers from being fired for tobacco use, ended up providing broader protection. The law cites a few examples of legal recreational activities: sports, hobbies, exercise, reading, watching television.
But recreation is “highly subjective,” said an appellate lawyer, Joseph Pace, who has written about the issue, and New York courts have said little about online activities. “At the moment, it’s an open question whether blogging and tweeting will be deemed protected ‘recreational activity,’” Mr. Pace wrote in an email.
The lawsuit could put NYU Langone under the microscope in the widening debate.
Dr. Neel’s court filings include several emails that expressed pro-Israel opinions sent among top NYU Langone officials denigrating other universities across the country for how they responded to protests and student demands related to the war.
In one email, a top hospital official wrote something insulting about the president of Harvard. In another email, Dr. Robert Grossman, the longtime chief executive of the hospital, called Stanford a piece of excrement and said that the University of Pennsylvania was “similarly feculent.”
Dr. Grossman — who is such a significant figure at the hospital that New York University’s medical school is named after him — also seemed to suggest that N.Y.U. students who protested against Israel should face punishment. “They should take away their scholarships,” Dr. Grossman wrote in a message to Dr. Neel in October.
Dr. Neel’s lawyer, Mr. Williams, said that his client’s online postings were “tepid” compared to views some hospital leaders shared in their emails to one another. “Grossman was suggesting they take away scholarships, when all Ben was doing was challenging those who celebrate the deaths of innocent Israeli citizens,” he said.
In a statement, NYU Langone said Dr. Neel’s decision to share those emails was just him “lashing out for being held accountable.”
“The emails referenced in the suit were among colleagues and Dr. Neel is now making them public in an effort to pressure NYU Langone,” the statement said.