Expelled columnist reinstated at Tech by court order

TEXAS — Sandeep Rao is back studying at Texas Tech.  

Two courts have forced the university to reinstate the medical student after he was expelled for allegedly revealing confidential information about an autopsy in his student newspaper column. Rao sued Texas Tech last year, claiming that his free-speech rights were violated. 

In May, a Texas appeals court upheld a trial court’s order that allowed Rao to remain at the university pending a decision on the merits of his lawsuit. The court stated that Rao’s column was protected under the Texas Constitution because it dealt with a matter of public concern.

Texas Tech has asked the Texas Supreme Court to review the case, but the court has not yet decided to take it.  

“We are just watching and waiting to see this whole thing resolved,” Rao said. “That’s when I’ll be truly comfortable with the situation.”

Rao provided a first-hand account of an autopsy in his column for the University Daily. Texas Tech University medical school officials said Rao violated a confidentiality agreement that prohibited him from releasing identifying information about the deceased. In the column, he mentioned the cause of death but did not state the name or age of the corpse whose autopsy he witnessed.  

The university’s disciplinary committee also considered a separate incident of academic misconduct in determining the punishment. Rao’s lawyers, however, argue that his expulsion was solely based on the content of his column, not on the previous charge of misconduct. They maintain it is unconstitutional for Rao to be expelled for his column.

In July 2002, the district court granted Rao a temporary injunction so he could return to school until his lawsuit went to trial. The university appealed the decision arguing the injunction was entered improperly because there was no evidence showing Rao was expelled for having engaged in protected speech. 

The appellate court modified the lower court’s terms of the injunction in May. Specifically, the court threw out a clause that said university officials could not say that Rao “lacks a moral compass.” 

The court, however, disagreed with the school’s overall claim that the temporary injunction was overbroad. 

Texas Tech medical officials refused to comment. 

Rao said he has stopped writing his column for the University Daily. He said he was too busy in his third year of a concurrent medical and graduate business program. 

“I just didn’t feel comfortable expressing my opinions at that point,” he said.

CASE: Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center v. Rao, 105 S.W.3d 763 (Tex.App.-Amarillo 2003).