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U.Va. medical student’s lawsuit continues next week, following debate over microaggressions

A judge dismissed three of Bhattacharya’s claims but ordered the First Amendment suit to continue, with a virtual hearing taking place May 6

<p>In Sept. 2019, a former medical student Kieran Bhattacharya filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.&nbsp;</p>

In Sept. 2019, a former medical student Kieran Bhattacharya filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. 

Former Medical student Kieran Bhattacharya was dismissed from the University’s School of Medicine in 2018 as a result of comments he made during a panel on microaggressions. A hearing next week will determine whether the University violated Bhattacharya’s First Amendment right to free speech.

“Bhattacharya’s speech at the panel discussion — questioning and critiquing the theory of microaggression — does not clearly fall into any category of speech that U.Va. Medical School can regulate or prohibit,” the opinion reads.

In September 2019, Bhattacharya filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. 

According to the opinion, Bhattacharya, then a second-year student at the University’s School of Medicine, attended a 17-minute panel on microaggressions — defined as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” — led by Beverly Colwell Adams, assistant dean of students and associated professor of psychology, on Oct. 25, 2018. 

After the conclusion of Adams’ presentation, Bhattacharya asked Adams several questions about her research. He was particularly interested in whether microaggressions could only be directed toward members of a marginalized community. When Adams explained that a microaggression did not have to be directed at a marginalized group, Bhattacharya claimed her definition was “contradictory.”

According to a transcript of the panel, Bhattacharya then argued that “a microaggression is entirely dependent on how the person who’s receiving it is reacting.”

Following the event, Assoc. Urology Professor Nora Kern — then an assistant professor — filed a Professionalism Concern Card against Bhattacharya to document an alleged violation of the Medical School’s professionalism standards. Kern — who also attended the panel and helped organize it — cited Bhattacharya’s “respect for others” and “respect for differences” as primary concerns. Bhattacharya was not notified of the card when it was filed.

Just hours after the panel, Christine Peterson, assistant dean for medical education, set up a meeting with Bhattacharya to discuss his “thoughts” regarding the panel. According to Bhattacharya, Peterson “barely mentioned” his actions at the panel and instead focused on “views on various social and political issues — including sexual assault, affirmative action and the election of President [Donald] Trump.”

On Nov. 14, 2018, the School of Medicine’s Academic Standards and Achievement Committee — which is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that medical students meet required levels of academic accomplishment and professionalism — met to discuss the Professionalism Concern Card against Bhattacharya. The committee voted unanimously to send Bhattacharya a letter reminding him of the importance of professionalism in medicine. According to the opinion, Bhattacharya still had not been notified of the Professionalism Concern Card that had been filed against him.

On Nov. 26, 2018, John Densmore, associate dean for admissions and student affairs at the School of Medicine, sent Bhattacharya an email informing him that he was required to go to Counseling and Psychological Services before attending class. Bhattacharya responded to the email, questioning the legality of “[mandating] psychiatric evaluations” in order to attend class.

School of Medical Registrar Katherine Yates then notified Bhattacharya via email that the Academic Standards and Achievement Committee was planning to discuss his enrollment status on Nov. 28, 2018. In an email response to Yates, Bhattacharya expressed frustration at what he felt was a last-minute warning.

“Do you normally just give students three hours to prepare after indirectly threatening to kick them from medical school?” Battacharya wrote in the email. “Why exactly is my enrollment status up for discussion?”

Later that day, the committee voted unanimously to suspend Bhattacharya, giving him the option to petition to return in August 2019.

In an email statement to The Cavalier Daily, University spokesperson Brian Coy said the committee dismissed Bhattacharya because he violated the School of Medicine’s professionalism standards.

“The student in question was dismissed from the School of Medicine after a series of incidents and repeated instances of erratic behavior that raised security concerns as well as questions about his professionalism and fitness to practice medicine,” Coy said. “Claims that he was dismissed because he exercised his First Amendment rights are baseless, as the facts will show.”

Bhattacharya claims that his dismissal is a violation of First Amendment protection from retaliation. In addition to freedom of speech, the First Amendment also covers “the right to be free from retaliation by a public official for the exercise of that right.” Bhattacharya alleges that the University infringed on his right to be free from retaliation by dismissing him for his comments at the panel.

Deputy Chief of Police Melissa Fielding informed Bhattacharya on Dec. 30, 2018 that the University Police Department had issued a No Trespass Order against him. A No Trespass Order is a written notice warning a person that they are prohibited from entering or remaining on University or Medical Center Property. Fielding did not immediately explain the basis for the order to Bhattacharya.

Six months later, Fielding emailed Bhattacharya explaining that the University Police Department had issued the No Trespass Order due to Bhattacharya’s “comments on a chat room that were perceived as threats.” Though Fielding did not specify what the comments were and the University has yet to release the comments, she said they “raised security concerns for the community.”

In an appeal letter to the NTO, Battacharya wrote that he does not want anyone to feel threatened and that it is “unclear as to what, if any, perceived threats were a direct result” of his actions.

“It is not clear to me what Deputy Chief Melissa Fielding was referring to by the term ‘chat room,’” Bhattacharya wrote. “I have posted on publicly available internet forums which include but are not limited to the following: StudentDoctorNetwork, CollegeConfidential, Reddit, 4chan and others.”

According to University policy on the Issuance of Trespass Warnings, a No Trespass Order lasts four years after the date on which it was served and can be re-issued prior to the expiration of the original order. Because of the No Trespass Order, Densmore informed Bhattacharya that he would “not be able to proceed with an appeal of [his] suspension” as a result of the No Trespass Order. In addition, Bhattacharya was informed in July 2019 that he could not request readmission to the Medical School because of the order.

The University does not comment on the specifics of pending litigation, but Coy said that the proceedings are based on allegations rather than on concrete evidence.

“The court’s recent ruling is based only on the facts as alleged by the plaintiff, and must accept all of those allegations as true at this stage of the proceedings,” Coy said. “All but one of the claims in this case have been dismissed, and we are confident that the remaining claim is without merit.”

Of the lawsuit’s four original complaints — violation of free speech, deprivation of due process, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights and conspiracy to injure Bhattacharya’s trade, business and profession —  only the First Amendment violation allegation will proceed in court.

“None of [Bhattacharya’s] allegations support a reasonable inference that Peterson, Kern or Rasmussen conspired with anyone outside U.Va., or that they were not acting in their capacities as U.Va. Medical School faculty members in participating in the decision to suspend Bhattacharya,” the opinion reads.

A hearing for the case will take place via telephone on May 6. A four-day trial is set to begin on Jan. 4 of next year.