Federal judge rejects UNM student’s free speech lawsuit

A former University of New Mexico student, who claims her First Amendment rights were violated by a professor who would not read one of her papers, had her case dismissed on Friday by Chief U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo, The Albuquerque Journal reports.

Armijo dismissed the suit, which was filed against the school’s Board of Regents, after she found the defendants were protected by “qualified immunity.” Under the principle of “qualified immunity,” Armijo declared “the Board of Regents is an arm of the State of New Mexico, and is immune from suit in federal court under the Eleventh Amendment,” the case summary explains.

Monica Pompeo, a former student at the University of New Mexico, filed the lawsuit in 2013 after Professor Caroline Hinkley refused to grade a paper written by Pompeo that criticized lesbian marriages.

In the spring semester of 2012, Pompeo enrolled in a course called “Images of Women: From Icons to Iconoclasts,” an elective course offered by the university’s Cinematic Arts Department and taught by Hinkley.

The syllabus, according to the case summary, alerted students to possible “incendiary class discussions” and warned students they might not be comfortable with the course material.

For one assignment, Pompeo elected to write a four-page paper on the 1985 film Desert Hearts, which depicts a lesbian romance. Pompeo referred to one character in the film as “still sexually vibrant, in spite of her perverse attraction to the same sex” and argued that lesbianism is a “very death-like state as far as its inability to reproduce naturally.” Pompeo went on to criticize the film as a whole as “entirely perverse in its desire and attempt to reverse the natural roles of man and woman in addition to championing the barren wombs of these women.”

In response, Hinkley noted in the margin “why is attraction to the same sex perverse? This is a strong statement that needs critical backup. Otherwise it’s just inflammatory.” Hinkley also advised Pompeo against using the word “barren” because she said it has negative historical connotations. Hinkley refused to assign a grade before Pompeo rewrote the paper with the suggested changes.

Pompeo, in turn, contacted Professor Susan Dever, director of the Cinematic Arts Department. Dever agreed with Hinkley’s suggestions and said the word “childless” had a less derogatory tone.

“I will probably use the word ‘BARREN’ it is my choice; I don’t like to be told what words I may and may not use, ever,” Pompeo wrote in response. In addition, Pompeo told Hinkley the films they watched in class were “unendurable.”

According to the case summary, Hinkley eventually told Pompeo her word choices could be considered hate speech and they would likely be watching more films she would find unendurable, which Pompeo took as a threat to drop the course.

After an extensive correspondence with Hinkley, Dever, and the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, which the case summary outlines in great deal, Pompeo filed a lawsuit against the Board of Regents for failing to protect and honor her First Amendment rights.

The university immediately petitioned the lawsuit arguing for “qualified immunity,” which the court initially rejected. However, after the court obtained Pompeo’s paper and her e-mail exchange with Hinkley, Armijo dismissed the case.

According to The Journal, Pompeo, and her attorney, Bob Gorence, have filed an appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The next hearing in the case is set for January.

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