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UVA Medical Student Can Move Forward with Free-Speech Lawsuit Against School, Federal Judge Rules

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Jan 08, 2022 | 0 Comments

Healthy debates have traditionally been one of the cornerstones of academic rigor. However, one University of Virginia medical student has been learning the hard way that questioning authority can be tricky in today's culture of microaggressions and marginalized groups.

A federal judge has ruled that the student's free-speech lawsuit, stemming from a panel discussion on the topic of so-called “microaggressions,” has merit and can therefore move forward in the judicial system.

What Are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are subtle, sometimes unintentional acts or comments that reveal bias or prejudice against a marginalized person or community. The term was coined in 1970 but has recently gained prominence as racism, gender bias, and other forms of discrimination have increasingly taken center stage in public discourse.

One classic example of a microaggression is a white person trying to convey an attitude of racial acceptance by claiming that “some of my best friends are Black.” Another instance might see a woman being inappropriately acknowledged for her fashion sense or imminent motherhood rather than her professional accomplishments.

The Medical Student's Academic Troubles and Legal Journey

Kieran Bhattacharya's battle began in October of 2018. During a panel discussion's Q&A period, the second-year student asked the presenter, UVA assistant dean Beverly Cowell Adams, about the semantics of the term “microaggressions” and whether they only affect marginalized groups. According to court documents, Bhattacharaya accused Adams of being contradictory in her responses and questioned the definition of both terms. The two discussed the issue for about five minutes.

After the panel concluded, one of its attendees, assistant urology professor Nora Kern, filed a “Professionalism Concern Card” against Bhattacharya, claiming that he was “antagonistic” and disrespectful. Kern also expressed her concern about how the aspiring physician might eventually treat patients “on wards.”

The Consequences of One Student's Questions

This report triggered an escalating series of actions and encounters between the student and various UA departments, including the Academic Standards and Achievement Committee. Bhattacharaya was questioned, reprimanded, mandated to seek counseling, summoned to a hearing, and eventually suspended for “aggressive and inappropriate interactions in multiple situations” as well as violations of professional standards.

Several weeks later, he was removed from campus by UVA police for allegedly posting threatening comments on social media.

The Lawsuit Against UVA

In response, Bhattacharya sued the school in September 2019, claiming that his 14th and First Amendment rights had been violated. Describing the allegations as “baseless,” the university asked for the suit to be thrown out.

While U.S. District Judge Norman Moon agreed with UVA in part and dismissed some of the counts in Bhattacharya v. Murray, he also decided that the free-speech allegations would stand and that the case would therefore go to trial or be eligible for a summary judgment ruling.

Do You Have a Similar Case?

Students who are accused of violating academic standards, particularly if they have been suspended or dismissed from the academic institution, require an effective and conscientious defense. That's just what student defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team at the Lento Law Firm provide. If you are facing disciplinary action such as suspension or expulsion, call 888-535-3686 or use our contact form to tell us about your case—and to learn about how we can help.

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento passionately fights for the futures of his clients nationwide. Attorney Lento and his team represent students and others in disciplinary cases and various other proceedings at colleges and universities across the United States. Attorney Lento has helped countless students, professors, and others in academia at more than a thousand colleges and universities across the United States, and when necessary, he and his team have sought justice on behalf of clients in courts across the nation. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide, and he can help you or your student address any school-related issue or concern anywhere in the United States.

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