Former Texas Tech U. newspaper columnist who was expelled sues university

TEXAS — A medical school student who wrote a weekly columnfor The University Daily has filed a lawsuit in state courtchallenging his expulsion from Texas Tech University.

In the lawsuit, Sandeep Rao alleges that a Jan. 24 column,"Autopsy proves to be eye-opening," prompted the universityto expel him from the medical school on April 25. Rao wrote aboutan autopsy he conducted on an unnamed man with his professor,Dr. Jerry Spencer, who is also the county medical examiner. Soonafter the column was published, Spencer complained that Rao violatedthe terms of a confidentiality agreement he signed by disclosingdetails of the case and the diagnosis.

Under Texas law, however, records of autopsies performed bymedical examiners are open to the public. Thus Rao did not releaseany information that readers could not have obtained on theirown.

Rao’s work at The University Daily clearly played arole in his expulsion, his lawsuit claims. According to the suit,members of a hearing committee looking into Spencer’s complaintquestioned Rao about other columns he wrote, including a piececritical of a local mayor and another supporting the U.S. warin Afghanistan.

"This committee was investigating the broader issue ofRao’s work as a journalist, not any real misconduct on his part,"the lawsuit states. "[The university] sought to retaliateagainst Rao because they disagreed with his point of view, notas a result of any shortcomings as a student or potential physician."

The university has denied Rao’s column provoked the expulsion.

"He is no longer in the medical school for reasons unrelated tothe column or his work on The University Daily,"said Cindy Rugeley, vice chancellor of news and information. "Frankly,if we kicked out everyone who made us unhappy for a column, therewouldn’t be any students left at Texas Tech."

Rugeley declined to discuss specifics of the case, citing thefederal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also knownas the Buckley Amendment.

On Sunday, the Star-Telegram of Fort Worth ran a commentaryby senior editorial writer Jill Labbe, who shed light on thestate freedom of information law regarding autopsy records. Labbealso noted that an alumnus, Toby Hamilton, wrote about an autopsyhe performed for The Journal of the American Medical Association.A link to Hamilton’s article is featured on the medical school’sWeb site.

Rao, who voluntarily contributed to The University Daily,eventually stopped submitting new columns after the incident,the paper’s editorial adviser, Carla McKeown, said. The papertook no action against Rao and has not been contacted by the universityabout his expulsion, she said.

"Neither I nor the editor knew about the confidentialityagreement," McKeown said. "The editor has told me thathad he known, he wouldn’t have run the column, especially notwithout checking with the people involved."

McKeown said the incident would probably make editors morecautious about articles written by medical school students inhopes of avoiding problems with confidentiality agreements.

Rao’s suit seeks a temporary injunction asking that he be allowedto continue his studies while the case goes forward. His attorney,Andrew Golub, said Rao has already missed his spring semesterexams and is in jeopardy of missing the U.S. Medical LicensingExamination, which would delay his studies. A hearing is scheduledfor Thursday.

View the Texas law on autopsy records in “Tapping Officials’ Secrets,” a guide published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.