FREE SPEECH?

Med Student Says School Censored His Facebook Rant

After he wrote an anti-abortion screed, a medical student says the University of New Mexico gave him two options: change his Facebook post or get out.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Anti-abortion Facebook rants are a First Amendment right, a University of New Mexico medical student says. But his school, which allegedly threatened to expel him over his social media activity, says differently.

After University of New Mexico medical student Paul Hunt wrote an anti-Obama, anti-abortion post on his Facebook page in 2012, the university allegedly told him to rewrite the post, or leave the school. Hunt, who is still enrolled at the University of New Mexico, rewrote the post. But the school did not remove the “black mark” from his academic and professional record, potentially damaging his job prospects, Hunt alleges in a new lawsuit.

“Shame on you for supporting the genocide against the unborn,” Hunt wrote in his 2012 Facebook status. “You’re WORSE than the Germans during WW2.”

According to Hunt’s lawsuit, filed in Albuquerque’s district court last week, the school threatened to expel him if he did not change language in the post and complete a “professional enhancement program,” which included writing an essay on “public expression of political beliefs by physicians.” Even after he completed the “professional enhancement” program, the school left permanent negative references in Hunt’s academic record, potentially damaging his post-graduate employment prospects, he says. The lawsuit asks that the university remove all references to the Facebook post from his records.

Hunt says he rewrote the Facebook post multiple times, resubmitting the language to school administrators until they found it satisfactory. He also wrote multiple apology letters to various school departments, at the university’s request.

“The committee substantiated that your Facebook post was in fact unprofessional conduct due to violations of the UNM Respectful Campus Policy (2240) and the UNM School of Medicine Social Media policy,” school administrators allegedly told Hunt after he posted the status in 2012.

The University of New Mexico, which did not return a request for comment, has a social media policy that asks students not to post profane or unprofessional material online.

“Respect your peers,” UNM’s social media policy reads in part. “Refrain from publishing content that contains slurs, personal insults or attacks, and/or profanity or obscenity. Do not engage in any conduct on a social media site that would not be acceptable in The University of New Mexico workplace.”

Hunt’s six-paragraph post contained at least three expletives, and called Obama supporters “sick, disgusting people.” But Hunt’s lawyer says the school cannot police its students’ social media for instances of profanity.

“I understand that they’re trying to promote civility. They’re trying to promote respectful dialogue. But it is really difficult to punish people for using profanity,” Hunt’s lawyer, Jeffrey Baker, told The Daily Beast. “If somebody’s screaming profanity at a professor in the middle of a class, that’s one thing. If somebody’s screaming profanity during a football game, that’s something quite different.”

Not only is Hunt’s political speech protected under the First Amendment, it does not even violate University of New Mexico’s social media policy, the lawsuit argues. Hunt’s rant was not directed at any particular student (only “to all of you who support the Democratic candidates”), and did not explicitly reference the university.

“If you were saying something on your private Facebook page that’s directed at the world and nobody in particular, it’s difficult for a university to try to police that,” Baker said. “I think it’s inappropriate to try and police it, other than to say ‘there are effective ways to communicate and less-effective ways to communicate, here are some effective ways you might want to consider in the future.’”