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Student’s First Amendment Suit Against U. of New Mexico Will Proceed

If there is a safe place to share controversial opinions without punishment, it should be a class at a public institution of higher education that professes to foster discussions by “open minds.” Yet despite the inclusion of these words in the syllabus of the University of New Mexico’s (UNM’s) “Images of (Wo)men: From Icons to Iconoclasts” course, former student Monica Pompeo was forced to drop the class after writing a paper her professor deemed “hate speech.” Pompeo filed suit, alleging that her First Amendment right to free speech was violated, and a federal judge has denied UNM’s motion to dismiss her case.

The Albuquerque Journal reported on the case yesterday. Caroline Hinkley, who taught the course, and Susan Dever, Hinkley’s supervisor, took issue with Pompeo’s response to the 1985 film Desert Hearts, about a lesbian romance. In her paper, Pompeo referenced a character’s “perverse attraction to the same sex” and “barren womb.” According to Pompeo, Hinkley refused to grade the paper and suggested she not return to class, and Dever threatened punishment for her language.

In allowing the case to proceed, Chief U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo noted the context in which Pompeo’s paper was written:

In her Sept. 29 order, Armijo found that Pompeo’s claims are “sufficient to make out a plausible case that Defendants violated Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by subjecting Plaintiff to restrictions on speech that were not reasonably related to legitimate pedagogic concerns.”

Armijo questioned whether a “university can have a legitimate pedagogical interest in inviting students to engage in ‘incendiary’ and provocative speech on a topic and then punishing a student because he or she did just that. Simply because Plaintiff expressed views about homosexuality that some people may deem offensive does not deprive her views of First Amendment protection.”

Furthermore, the judge agreed with the plaintiff that “no reasonable educator could have believed that by criticizing lesbianism, (Pompeo’s) critique fell outside the parameters of the class, given the description of the class set out in the syllabus.”

FIRE will keep watching for updates on this case.

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