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Editorial: Civility police hammer UNM medical student

The thought police are on patrol at the University of New Mexico.

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed by a UNM medical student shows the degree to which Health Sciences Center officials appear to be willing to go in enforcing a play nice, politically correct policy that sweeps away First Amendment rights.

And it’s worth asking if it’s pure coincidence that the student was expressing a conservative, anti-abortion opinion not much in favor on university campuses.

“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,” Health Sciences Center spokesman John Arnold said in an email when asked about the lawsuit.

It’s hard to reconcile that respect for an individual’s free speech rights, for politically charged comments made in a personal forum, with HSC’s disciplinary process in which med student Paul Hunt was threatened with expulsion, forced to write a letter of apology and had a reprimand placed in his file after he posted a comment on his personal Facebook page equating abortion to Nazism. He also used profanity in criticizing the 2012 re-election of President Barack Obama as it related to the abortion issue.

Because he is a student, the powers that be have concluded those comments and others ran afoul of the Respectful Campus policy instituted in part as a response to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2011 crackdown on enforcement of Title IX of the 1972 federal Civil Rights Act. In addition to gender discrimination issues, Title IX covers some speech, such as off-color comments some – anyone really – might find offensive.

Lost in translation apparently is the notion that people have a First Amendment right to political speech, which Hunt claims he was exercising.

He is represented by Albuquerque attorney Jeffrey Baker.

A School of Medicine committee decided Hunt’s post constituted “unprofessional conduct” and in lieu of dismissing him from the school, it imposed – in what can only be called Orwellian newspeak – a “professionalism enhancement prescription.”

While the goal of a campus free of harassment, assault or bullying is laudable, the objection boils down to Hunt’s comments on abortion and Obama made outside the UNM community. Those would certainly seem to qualify as political speech.

Considering an apparent lack of “professionalism enhancement prescriptions” in recent cases of political speech involving UNM – for instance, the 2014 takeover of the Mayor’s Office led by a UNM professor protesting the police department or the 2011 takeover of Yale Park by the occupy movement – one can only wonder: If Hunt’s post had decried abortion opponents, would it have been a problem for the UNM Health Sciences Center? One might recall that the center is now caught up in controversy over the use of fetal tissue from an Albuquerque abortion clinic.

(For the record, UNM made the right call in saying associate professor David Correia was exercising his personal rights of free speech in protesting the Albuquerque Police Department.)

UNM cannot guarantee no one will be offended by what someone in its community says. That’s an impossible task. It’s good to promote a civil atmosphere. The trick is to maintain civility while fairly protecting First Amendment rights, especially in cases where speech may be unpopular.

If you can’t express a controversial opinion at an institute of higher learning, where can you?

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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