By Donavyn Coffey
Medscape, December 14, 2021
A medical school has changed its tune about a controversial student club after being sued for initially rejecting the group. As of this fall, the Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS), in Norfolk, Virginia, will host one of the country’s newest chapters of Students for a National Health Program (SNaHP). The club was approved in August, 7 months after being denied by the student government and a day after a medical student sued the institution for viewpoint discrimination.
Just before Christmas break in 2020, Edward Si, a medical student at EVMS, applied to start a SNaHP chapter. He believed the application process was a formality. Registering through the student government would give the new SNaHP chapter access to school facilities, funding, and use of the university’s name. However, the application was denied.
According to the complaint filed in US District Court, the student government rejected the application, stating it did “not want to create clubs based on opinions, political or otherwise, and the mission and goals of [SNaHP] do not describe what we believe to be necessary or sustainable for a club.”
The club, which advocates for a single-payer healthcare system, had to fight for its newfound legitimacy on campus for 7 months before being approved.
EVMS did not respond to Medscape’s interview requests.
The EVMS roster of clubs raised questions about the university’s reason for denying his proposed group, according to Si. For example, Medical Students for Choice, LGBT-focused Alliance Group, and the Christian Medical and Dental Association, to name a few approved clubs, are all officially registered with the school, though they elevate specific viewpoints and take political stances on certain issues. To Si, it appeared the student government found some opinions more palatable than others.
Believing that his constitutional rights were being undermined, Si sought legal counsel and sued the school for viewpoint discrimination in August. The day after the suit was filed, EVMS approved the club.
Now, almost a year later, the club is actively advocating for a single-payer healthcare system on campus. But Si’s legal counsel says they’re continuing the suit until the school changes the policies that allowed for discrimination in the first place.
Organizers at SNaHP headquarters in Illinois say a student chapter has only been denied on one other occasion.
“This was really unusual for a university to deny a group of medical students the chance to develop an organization promoting health policy,” Clare Fauke, communications specialist for the organization, said.
First started in 2010, SNaHP now has more than 100 chapters across the country hosting educational activities, speakers, and seminars. They organize phone banks to call congressional leaders and lead street medic efforts, Fauke said. Many of these students go on to be members and leaders in SNaHP’s parent organization, Physicians for a National Health Program.
Long-time member and current president of Physicians for a National Health Program, Susan Rogers, MD, said, “I don’t know why they had to go to these lengths to get their org approved. I can only say that the political climate in this country has gotten so polarized that it would be remiss to think it didn’t trickle into universities.”
When he received the rejection letter from the student government in early January 2021, Si was initially disheartened. But then he read the email several times.
Si said he believed he might have been discriminated against or had his rights violated.
“That was more shocking than getting rejected in the first place,” he said.
EVMS doesn’t have a way to appeal a decision made by the student government, so Si texted a member of the student government about his concerns. They called Si to explain, but Si found their explanation insufficient. He would have to go above the student government to the administration. But before he could do that, he felt he needed protection and a legal expert who could explain the law.
Si reached out to FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Attorneys at FIRE sent a letter to EVMS in February detailing their opinion on the student government’s alleged viewpoint discrimination.
“The first amendment protects the right to an opinion and the right to associate with others,” Jeff Zemen, one of the attorneys on Si’s case, explains in this video. “So EVMS can’t prevent the club because of its opinions.”
These kinds of First Amendment infringements are “often resolved before the need of a lawsuit,” Zemen later told Medscape. However, in response to FIRE’s letter, EVMS invited SNaPH to reapply, claiming they hadn’t submitted a constitution, a document establishing the club’s operating principles, the first go-round. Si and Zemen both say that was untrue, that Si did submit a constitution on December 20, 2020, and the initial rejection from student government didn’t mention any insufficiencies in SNaHP’s application.
Si emailed the vice president and general counsel on March 1, 2021, according to court documents, concerned that the administration had been misinformed to think SNaPH was denied based on an unfinished application. Si did reapply on March 8, 2021. The following week. FIRE sent a second letter notifying EVMS about the reapplication, but EVMS never responded, according to the complaint. In late March, the SGA vice president said SNaHP’s application wouldn’t be reviewed until the fall.
Born out of a grassroots movement and unattached to an undergraduate institution, EVMS has developed a reputation for going its own way. The school is known for eccentric traditions, like themed costumes for Match Day and the POETS (Piss On Everything, Tomorrow’s Saturday) student program, which hosts regular student-faculty Friday celebrations.
“They take pride in the fact that they are the most diverse school in Virginia,” Si said. “You must understand, I would have thought that a club like mine would have been accepted. In our curriculum, we talk about healthcare disparity. I would have imagined that we would have been encouraged.”
Rogers said, “I can only [imagine] that they think getting students together to advance single payer is threatening, but I don’t know why.”
According to Zemen and the complaint, the decision to block the SNaHP chapter came from the student government association ― a body of medical students who are supervised by EVMS Board of Visitors. As a result of their decision, Si and his cofounders “were unable to avail themselves of resources made available to other groups: funding, school facilities, use of school names,” Zemen said.
Despite Si’s attempts to counter the rejection, the decision held for months. Then, FIRE filed the lawsuit against the EVMS president and other officials on Tuesday, August 17. Si’s club was approved on Wednesday.
“It felt good finally being vindicated,” Si said. “I felt like it was over and I can continue what I want to do, what I feel is necessary…. That’s what I’ve been doing right now.” The club is scheduling meetings, inviting speakers, and hopefully organizing advocacy events soon.
It’s a victory, but there are still some institutional changes that need to be made, Zemen said. There are bylaws in place within EVMS’s student government that allow for this type of decision making, he said. Beyond Si’s chapter of SNaHP, FIRE “want[s] to make sure that measures are in place that no longer allows student government to deny students based on viewpoint discrimination.”
FIRE said it plans to continue the lawsuit until “unconstitutional policies” are overturned, and they have remedied the 258 days Si went “without his constitutional rights.”