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Lawsuit tests speech limits at UNM

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

A former student who was ostracized by her professors for making anti-gay remarks in a critique she wrote for a film class can proceed with her First Amendment lawsuit against the University of New Mexico.

Chief U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo denied UNM’s motion to dismiss the case, rejecting the argument that restrictions the university placed on the student were “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogic concerns.”

Monica Pompeo filed the suit last year, claiming UNM acted improperly when she was kicked out of the class for describing lesbianism as perverse in a critique of a lesbian romance film.

Pompeo enrolled in the course, “Images of (Wo)men: From Icons to Iconoclasts,” offered by professor Caroline Hinkley in the spring 2012 semester. As a class assignment, Pompeo critiqued a 1985 lesbian drama, “Desert Hearts.”

After Hinkley graded the critiques, she advised Pompeo to pick up her paper from the cinematic arts office and “ponder the responses” she had written on Pompeo’s paper.

Those responses included a comment that the critique was “inflammatory and offensive.” She also blasted Pompeo’s view that a lesbian character in the film had a “perverse attraction to the same sex” and a “barren womb.”

The lawsuit alleges Hinkley violated her own syllabus, which called for “open minds” to examine “representations of a plethora of genders and sexualities.” Instead, Pompeo says, Hinkley accused her of resorting to “hate speech” and refused to grade her paper. The professor also made it clear that it would be in Pompeo’s best interests not to return to the class, Pompeo alleges.

Later, Pompeo met with Hinkley’s supervisor, Susan Dever, chairwoman of the cinematic arts department. Pompeo was told that the use of “barren” was both inappropriate and offensive.

The upshot of the meeting was that Pompeo was forced to drop Hinkley’s class and instead take an independent studies class under Dever. According to Pompeo’s lawsuit, however, she fared no better under Dever, who allegedly threatened her with repercussions for using certain language, specifically the word “barren.”

In her Sept. 29 order, Armijo found that Pompeo’s claims are “sufficient to make out a plausible case that Defendants violated Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by subjecting Plaintiff to restrictions on speech that were not reasonably related to legitimate pedagogic concerns.”

Armijo questioned whether a “university can have a legitimate pedagogical interest in inviting students to engage in ‘incendiary’ and provocative speech on a topic and then punishing a student because he or she did just that. Simply because Plaintiff expressed views about homosexuality that some people may deem offensive does not deprive her views of First Amendment protection.”

Furthermore, the judge agreed with the plaintiff that “no reasonable educator could have believed that by criticizing lesbianism, (Pompeo’s) critique fell outside the parameters of the class, given the description of the class set out in the syllabus.”

Hinkley did not respond to requests for an interview.

Pompeo’s attorney, Louren Oliveros of Gorence & Oliveros, said Wednesday that she is pleased by the order and looks forward to litigating the case in court.

“This has been pending for a long time,” she said. “A university should be a place where freedom of expression is invited and where robust debate is welcomed. We’re very much looking forward to having this case go to trial.”