Federal Judge Rules First Amendment Case Against University of Virginia May Proceed

Thomas Jefferson University of Virginia (Phil Roeder / Flickr / CC / Cropped)
Phil Roeder / Flickr / CC / Cropped

A federal judge recently ruled a University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine student, who was suspended for questioning the validity of “microaggressions” at an academic panel discussion, may move forward with a lawsuit against the school for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights.

In 2018, Kieran Bhattacharya, then a second-year medical student, attended a panel discussion hosted by several UVA professors that dealt with the topic of how “microaggressions” impact the practice of medicine. Apparently concerned with how the standard for “saying a microaggression” might apply, Bhattacharya questioned how it is possible the “person who is receiving the microaggressions somehow knows the intention of the person who made it,” adding, “a microaggression is entirely dependent on how the person who’s receiving it is reacting.”

Bhattacharya also questioned if it was a “requirement … that you are a member of a marginalized group … to be a victim of a microaggression,” expressing concern with the overbroad definition of ‘marginalized.’ Panelist Beverly Colwell Adams, UVA assistant dean, replied it was not a requirement and the definition was “intentional to make it more nonspecific.”

After a back-and-forth with the panel, one panelist, Assistant Professor Sara Rasmussen, accused Bhattacharya of being visibly “frustrated,” as she could “[read] his body language.”

On the same day of the panel, October 25, 2018, Assistant Professor Nora Kern, a panel organizer, filed a “Professionalism Concern Card” against Bhattacharya, stating in part:

This student asked a series of questions that were quite antagonistic toward the panel. … His level of frustration/anger seemed to escalate. … I am shocked that a med student would show so little respect toward faculty members. It worries me how he will do in wards.

Kern’s action started a domino effect of sanctions against Bhattacharya, according to Judge Norman K. Moon:

[T]hey issued a Professionalism Concern Card against him, suspended him from UVA Medical School, required him to undergo counseling and obtain “medical clearance” as a prerequisite for remaining enrolled, and prevented him from appealing his suspension or applying for readmission by issuing and refusing to remove the [No Trespass Order].

After Kern’s filing, but prior to Bhattacharya’s being aware of it, another professor, Christine Peterson, assistant dean for Medical Education, emailed Bhattacharya asking for time to meet because, she said, “I simply want to help you understand and be able to cope with the unintended consequences of conversations.” According to Moon’s ruling, the meeting did not deal with Bhattacharya’s conduct at the “microaggression” panel, but, rather, “Peterson attempted to determine Bhattacharya’s ‘views on various social and political issues — including sexual assault, affirmative action, and the election of President Trump.'”

On November 28, Bhattacharya’s academic adviser, Professor John Densmore, associate dean for Admissions and Student Affairs, sent an email to Bhattacharya requiring him to “be seen by CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services]” for a psychological evaluation “before [he could] return to classes.”

On the same day, UVA Medical School’s Academic Standards and Achievement Committee (ASAC) held an “emergency” suspension hearing wherein the committee found, unanimously, that Bhattacharya’s “aggressive and inappropriate interactions in multiple situations, including in public settings, during a speaker’s lecture, with [the] Dean, and during the committee meeting yesterday, constitute a violation of the School of Medicine’s Technical Standards.”

Bhattacharya’s suspension letter further articulated the standards he allegedly violated:

Demonstrating self-awareness and self-analysis of one’s emotional state and reactions; Modulating affect under adverse and stressful conditions and fatigue; Establishing effective working relationships with faculty, other professionals, and students in a variety of environments; and Communicating in a non-judgmental way with persons whose beliefs and understandings differ from one’s own.

Bhattacharya was subsequently slapped with a No Trespass Order from UVA’s Deputy Chief of Police Melissa Fielding, with no reported explanation, which barred him from coming on “any property or facility on the Grounds of the University of Virginia” for four years.

Judge Moon ruled that “the First Amendment protects not only the affirmative right to speak, but also the ‘right to be free from retaliation by a public official for the exercise of that right.'”

“Bhattacharya sufficiently alleges that Defendants retaliated against him,” Moon ruled, adding, “Because a student would be reluctant to express his views if he knew that his school would reprimand, suspend, or ban him from campus for doing so, the Court concludes that Bhattacharya has adequately alleged adverse action.”

The case is Bhattacharya v. Murray in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.

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