LAWSUIT: A med school prohibited a student from starting a club promoting healthcare reform. Now he’s suing to protect his rights.

August 17, 2021
  • FIRE files a lawsuit on behalf of med student whose prospective club advocating for single-payer healthcare was denied official recognition because it espouses an “opinion”
  • Public university stands idly by as student government — which already recognizes Christian and pro-choice clubs — engages in blatant viewpoint discrimination

NORFOLK, VA., Aug. 17, 2021 — “Do no harm” is the foundational principle of medical ethics, but a public medical school is harming its students by attempting to sterilize their opinions. 

Edward Si, a student at Eastern Virginia Medical School, won’t let that happen. Today, backed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Si filed a lawsuit against interim EVMS President Alfred Abuhamad and other university officials.

Si wants to establish a chapter of Students for a National Health Program (the student branch of the national organization Physicians for a National Health Program) at EVMS. Recognized clubs at EVMS receive a variety of benefits, including funding eligibility, use of the school’s name and branding, and use of campus facilities.

But the Student Government Association denied the club’s application for recognition solely because the club is based on an “opinion” — despite recognizing other opinion-based groups like Medical Students for Choice and the Christian Medical and Dental Association.

Si hopes that the lawsuit will vindicate his rights and send a message that public universities cannot get away with violating their students’ expressive and associational liberties. 

“I decided to sue in order to uncover the truth and to stand up for my basic constitutional and human rights,” Si said. “Without freedom of expression, there can be no student activism and political advocacy.”

COURTESY PHOTOS FOR MEDIA USE

In December 2020, on behalf of himself and 20 other prospective SNaHP members, Si applied for recognition to the student government. The following month, the SGA denied SNaHP’s application, claiming that it “does not want to create clubs based on opinions, political or otherwise, and the mission and goals of your club do not describe what we believe to be necessary or sustainable for a club.” The SGA cited no other reason for the denial.

Si spent months trying to persuade administrators to reverse the student government’s unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. The school’s Vice President and General Counsel Stacy Purcell referred him to Assistant Vice Dean of Student Affairs Allison Knight, but despite knowing of the clear rights violation, neither university official rectified the situation. 

To defend his rights, Si reached out to FIRE, which sent two letters on February 2 and March 15 calling on the university to end its viewpoint discrimination and recognize the club. Purcell responded to the first letter by inviting SNaHP to reapply and falsely claiming that the club did not comply with requirements. She did not respond to the second letter.

WATCH: Why I’m suing Eastern Virginia Medical School

FIRE publicly and privately warned EVMS multiple times that the student government is violating Edward’s First Amendment rights, and the school still refused to act,” said FIRE Litigation Fellow Jeff Zeman. “If EVMS won’t answer to the court of public opinion, it will answer in a court of law.”

Public universities are bound by the First Amendment, and it is unconstitutional to deny a student organization recognition granted to others on account of its viewpoint. EVMS’ vague and overly broad policies grant SGA members the ability to deny some student clubs school resources available to others, thereby denying students like Si their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law.

When a public med school says that a student can’t start a club promoting universal healthcare, it’s clear that First Amendment rights are dead on arrival,” said FIRE Attorney Greg Greubel. “EVMS has granted its student government the authority to recognize student clubs, but stands idly by when that authority is abused. FIRE will not rest until EVMS ensures all of its students equal treatment in accordance with their rights.”

The lawsuit was filed with Patrick Curran of Davis Wright Tremaine serving as local counsel.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

CONTACT:

Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Associate, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

PRONUNCIATION GUIDE:

  • Edward Si (SEE)
  • Greg Greubel (GRU-bul)
  • Jeff Zeman (ZEE-man)

Schools:  Eastern Virginia Medical School

Cases:  Eastern Virginia Medical School: Medical Student Unconstitutionally Prohibited from Starting Student Club Promoting Healthcare Reform