Victory: Probation Dropped for UC Davis Med Student; Unconstitutional ‘Civility’ Policy Remains

By on February 29, 2012

The University of California, Davis (UC Davis) School of Medicine has removed a student from probation after punishing him for telling a fellow student to stop monitoring the mailing list for his entering class. The School of Medicine (SOM) conflated Curtis Allumbaugh’s personal emails with professional practice when it invoked the UC Davis Principles of Community to punish his lack of "courtesy," then added insult to injury when it threatened to put any med student who violated the Principles of Community on academic probation. Allumbaugh came to FIRE for help.

Allumbaugh’s ordeal began after he emailed the "med2014" mailing list (or "listserv") on July 19, 2010, regarding a party he was organizing. The listserv was widely used for a variety of non-academic purposes. Allumbaugh’s email provided the address of the party, detailed the available space, and listed the variety of alcohol that would be available at the party. The email noted that others had signed up to bring snacks and mentioned that some things were still lacking for the party, such as music, fruit juice, and beer. Prior to Allumbaugh’s message, others had sent similar emails using the same listserv about their own parties, such as a "kegger" one student called "CAMP MED."

On July 20, 2010, a second-year student emailed Allumbaugh, notifying him that she had "been placed on the class of 2014′s listserve" and had monitored the class email. She criticized Allumbaugh’s email for placing "a heavy emphasis on alcohol." In response, Allumbaugh emailed her directly on July 21, calling her a "busy body" and telling her, "You should really just mind your own business and let our class be."

As a result of this email exchange, Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Graduate Medical Education James Nuovo sent Allumbaugh a letter on September 14, 2010, citing him for "failing to demonstrate the highest standards of civility and decency to all" and "failing to demonstrate courtesy, sensitivity and respect." On November 3, 2010, Allumbaugh received a letter from the SOM Committee on Student Progress, punishing him with academic probation for the rest of his time in medical school and requiring him to undergo a psychological assessment to determine whether he was "fit" to continue in medical school.

Finally, on November 19, 2010, SOM changed its rules to force all medical students to abide by the Principles of Community or else face academic probation

In response, FIRE wrote UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi on August 3, 2011, noting that enforcing professional standards in truly professional settings differs greatly from enforcing workplace standards in other settings such as private conversations. FIRE also noted that it is blatantly unconstitutional to police student speech under the UC Davis Principles of Community because such a "civility" policy violates the First Amendment right to freedom of speech when it is given disciplinary force. 

In fact, a federal court ruling from the Northern District of California, on First Amendment grounds, prevented administrators in the entire California State University System from enforcing such a "civility" policy, yet SOM has flouted that ruling. In 2007, San Francisco State University (SFSU) had put its College Republicans on trial before a campus tribunal for stepping on makeshift Hamas and Hezbollah flags during an anti-terrorism rally. The College Republicans sued SFSU for enforcing a "civility" policy similar to that of UC Davis. The lawsuit ultimately resulted in an injunction against SFSU, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Wayne Brazil wrote:

There also is an emotional dimension to the effectiveness of communication. [...] Civility connotes calmness, control, and deference or responsiveness to the circumstances, ideas, and feelings of others. [...] Given these common understandings, a regulation that mandates civility easily could be understood as permitting only those forms of interaction that produce as little friction as possible, forms that are thoroughly lubricated by restraint, moderation, respect, social convention, and reason. The First Amendment difficulty with this kind of mandate should be obvious: the requirement "to be civil to one another" and the directive to eschew behaviors that are not consistent with "good citizenship" reasonably can be understood as prohibiting the kind of communication that it is necessary to use to convey the full emotional power with which a speaker embraces her ideas or the intensity and richness of the feelings that attach her to her cause.

SOM Associate Dean of Curriculum and Competency Development Mark Servis replied to FIRE on August 10, 2011, defending the policy. FIRE responded on November 23, 2011, reminding Katehi that "violating well-established law regarding the First Amendment rights of students at public universities leaves you at risk of losing qualified immunity, thereby opening you and other administrators to personal liability" for the deprivation of students’ First Amendment rights. Servis again defended the policy in a reply on December 5, 2011.

Finally, on February 16, 2012, the Committee on Student Progress notified Allumbaugh that his probation had been dropped, but persisted in requiring him to adhere to the Principles of Community. 

FIRE will continue to advocate for the UC Davis School of Medicine to drop this unconstitutional requirement. Meanwhile, UC Davis, its School of Medicine, and individual administrators are at risk for knowingly violating students’ First Amendment rights.

Schools: University of California, Davis