Texas court upholds student columnist’s return to medical school

TEXAS — A Texas Tech University medical student, whowas expelled after medical school officials said he wrongly revealedconfidential autopsy details in his student newspaper column, can continuepursuing his degree. On May 12, the state appellate court in Amarilloupheld a previous court order that overturned the punishment to Sandeep Rao andallowed him to remain in school pending the outcome of his lawsuit, which will determinewhether his free-speech rights were violated.Rao, a student in his thirdyear of a concurrent medical and graduate business program at Texas TechUniversity in Lubbock County, was expelled early last year after he wrote acolumn for the University Daily that gave a first-hand account ofwitnessing an autopsy. Texas Tech University medical school officialsargued that Rao had violated a confidentiality agreement that prohibited himfrom releasing identifiable information or facts about the deceased. InRao’s column, he mentioned the cause of death but did not state the nameor age. The university’s disciplinary committee also considered aseparate charge of academic misconduct in determining Rao’s punishment.His lawyers argued that his expulsion was based on the content of his article,not on the previous charge of misconduct. They maintained in the lawsuit that itwas unconstitutional for him to be expelled based on the content of hiscolumn.A state district court judge granted Rao a temporary injunctionlast July, allowing him to remain at the university pending the trial on themerits of the case. Texas Tech appealed the temporary injunction, but last monththe state appellate court affirmed the lower court’s reasons for orderingRao’s immediate reinstatement at the university.“There is aguarded optimism,” Rao said. “We feel confident that the courtsupported the initial decision but at the same time we are just watching andwaiting to see this whole thing resolved. That’s when I’ll be trulycomfortable with the situation.”Texas Tech appealed the temporaryinjunction based on four issues, all of which were rejected by the appellatecourt. The school argued the injunction was entered improperly because there wasno evidence showing Rao was expelled for having engaged in protected speech. Butthe appeals court stated that Rao’s article was protected under the TexasConstitution because it dealt with a matter of public concern. The court alsorejected procedural and jurisdictional concerns raised by the university.The appellate court did modify the district court’s terms of theinjunction so that university officials could better understand the appropriateways to treat Rao. Specifically, the court threw out a clause that saiduniversity officials could not say that Rao “lacks a moralcompass.”However, the court disagreed with the school’soverall claim that the temporary injunction was constitutionally overbroad.Andrew Golub, Rao’s attorney, said he planned on asking for acontinuance of Rao’s trial, which is scheduled to begin in July. But hesaid Rao may reach a settlement with Texas Tech. “The evidence isoverwhelming that he was punished because of the article,” Golub said.“If we have to try this case Mr. Rao will prevail. The burden is on theuniversity to determine they had a compelling interest in squashing thespeech.”Texas Tech medical officials refused to comment on thiscase. The Office of the Texas Attorney General said the school has until June 25 toappeal to the Texas Supreme Court but no decisions have been made. Raosaid his life at Texas Tech has returned to normal since the legal battle began.He said he has not been treated differently by his peers or professors and islooking forward to graduating next year. However, he did stop writing his columnfor the University Daily.“I just didn’t feelcomfortable expressing my opinions at that point,” Rao said. “Andthere’s no time. I’m in my third year.”

Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center v. Rao, 2003 WL 21058116 (Tex.App.-Amarillo).
Read the decision here

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