SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: October 23, 2023

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):University of California Berkeley

Region & Country:Europe | United Kingdom

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On October 23, 2023, the board of directors of eLife, a nonprofit open-access journal that publishes articles in biomedical and life sciences, removed Michael B. Eisen, a genetics and development professor at the University of California, Berkeley, as editor-in-chief because of a post that he made on X/Twitter commenting on the war between Israel and Hamas.

The removal occurred against the backdrop of a surprise Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 that left over 1,000 Israelis and foreign nationals dead and more than 200 abducted, and the subsequent Israeli military bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of mid-November, has reportedly killed more than 11,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions around speech on campus across the world.

On October 13, 2023, Eisen retweeted an article from The Onion that highlighted civilian deaths in Gaza and praised the publication for being more courageous than university leaders on speaking about the conflict. On October 14, in a now-deleted post on X/Twitter, eLife condemned the October 7 attacks and implied that Eisen’s actions may violate the journal’s code of conduct, stating “while the opinions of eLife staff and editorial board are their own, they are covered by our code of conduct. We take breaches of this seriously and investigate accordingly.”

On October 23, Eisen announced via X/Twitter that he was being replaced as editor-in-chief because of his retweet. In a statement, the eLife board of directors said Eisen had previously received feedback that his communication and social media choices were “at key times been detrimental to the cohesion of the community we are trying to build and hence to eLife’s mission.” According to the statement, this history, along with his recent post, had led to the decision to replace him.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the dismissal of a scholar in apparent retaliation for exercising the right to freedom of expression. Scholars have the right to express criticism without fear of reprisal, and academic publications have an obligation to refrain from retaliatory actions intended to punish, restrict, or chill expressive activity. In addition to harm to the immediate victim, such actions undermine academic freedom.