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Medical student’s Facebook blast brings sanctions

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

A University of New Mexico medical student says in a federal lawsuit that school officials imposed sanctions on him and forced him to write a letter of apology after he posted a message on Facebook equating abortion to genocide and used profanity in criticizing President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012.

Paul Hunt alleges in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque last week that he was threatened with expulsion for what he contends was exercising his First Amendment rights of political speech.

The lawsuit says Hunt’s posting was on his personal Facebook page and the posting itself doesn’t say he is speaking as a UNM medical student.

“To all of you who support the Democratic candidates … Your party and your candidates parade their depraved belief in legal child murder around with pride…” the post stated. “You’re WORSE than the Germans during WW2.”

“If you think gay marriage or the economy or taxes or whatever else is more important than this, you’re (expletive deleted) ridiculous.”

A screen capture of the posting is included in UNM’s response to the lawsuit.

Someone, the lawsuit says, saw the post and reported Hunt to UNM school of medicine staff. A committee reviewed the case and found Hunt’s Facebook post constituted “unprofessional conduct.”

“However, instead of dismissing you from the school of medicine, the committee has chosen to impose a professionalism enhancement prescription,” read a letter sent to Hunt.

According to the lawsuit, Hunt was forced to write an apology and rewrite the post or face expulsion. Hunt, the lawsuit said, complied with those requests. The suit also said the medical staff cast aspersions over his future with a disciplinary mark on his record following the investigation.

“This post was inherently political speech, protected by the First Amendment,” the lawsuit argued. “These negative references have tainted and will probably jeopardize (Hunt’s) acceptance into a preferred residency program upon graduation from the school of medicine.”

Jeffrey Baker, the attorney representing Hunt, said his client is still enrolled in school and plans to graduate in 2018, though Hunt is currently on a leave of absence.

Baker said the lawsuit was initially filed in state court in January before it was moved to federal court later this year. UNM attorneys have called for the federal court to dismiss the lawsuit. They say Hunt violated the school’s standards and university policy.

“The school of medicine teaches students that because of the stature of a physician with his or her patients and the influence that the physician can assert over patients or potential patients, it is essential that the physician’s personal beliefs must not be broadcast in inappropriate ways or forums,” wrote university attorneys in response to the lawsuit.

John Arnold, a spokesman with the Health Sciences Center, said the department couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

“UNM respects an individual’s right to freedom of speech, while also striving to foster an environment that reflects courtesy, civility and respectful communication, as stated in the university’s Respectful Campus policy,” he said in an email. “We stand by our response filed with the court last week and refer you to that motion.”

In the response, UNM attorney said Hunt has the ability to petition for the removal of the disciplinary note on his academic record.

Hunt is seeking an unspecified amount of damages and fees. He also wants the school to remove any references to the Facebook incident from his record.