Metro Weekly

Student appeals dismissal of lawsuit over anti-gay paper

A federal judge ruled that professors' criticisms of paper did not violate free speech rights

University of New Mexico (Photo: Nightscream, via Wikimedia Commons).
University of New Mexico (Photo: Nightscream, via Wikimedia Commons).

A student whose lawsuit against the University of New Mexico for violating her First Amendment rights suffered a setback in September is appealing a federal judge’s decision to throw out the suit. But what became a cause célèbre among social conservatives eager to denounce political correctness may have been less about free speech and more about the inferior quality of the student’s paper.

Monica Pompeo, a student at the University of New Mexico, initially sued the school in 2013, claiming that her professor had violated her free speech rights by “kicking her out of class” for criticizing lesbianism in an essay. Pompeo and her lawyer, Bob Gorence, have since appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit of Appeals, based in Denver, the Albuquerque Journal reports.

That appeal has been filed and is currently set in the mediation stage. A hearing in the case has been scheduled for January.

Initially, U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo refused the school’s request to dismiss the case. But in September, Armijo dismissed the suit, saying that she had not seen Pompeo’s paper or the professors’ responses at the time of her initial ruling. Armijo said the court “erred” in denying the motion to dismiss, finding that the professors’ conduct and suggestions provided to Pompeo in terms of her word choice and citations to justify her thesis were within the scope of teaching and did not violate Pompeo’s free speech rights.

Based on the evidence provided to Armijo, Pompeo’s professor, Caroline Hinkley, refused to grade Pompeo’s paper but gave the student numerous opportunities to rewrite an essay critiquing a lesbian-themed film. Pompeo, Hinkley, and her boss, Susan Dever, communicated back-and-forth through emails, meetings and phone calls to urge Pompeo to consider a rewrite. Hinkley and Dever explained that Pompeo’s statements about the film needed to be substantiated in accordance with academic standards. Otherwise, they were merely just opinions, and the assignment was not an opinion piece.

For example, Dever had suggested that Pompeo change the word “barren” to “childless” to describe the lesbians’ wombs, noting that “childless” has a less derogatory tone — a suggestion which Pompeo outright rejected, saying she did not like being told what words to use in her essay. Hinkley had also asked Pompeo to back up her assertions about homosexuality being “perverse,” asking her to provide supporting evidence for her thesis. Pompeo refused to rewrite the paper but complained that she felt she was being pressured out of the class.

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