NORFOLK, Va. — An Eastern Virginia Medical School student is suing the school, claiming student government leaders and school administrators violated his First Amendment rights.
In December 2020, Edward Si applied to create a student organization advocating for single-payer healthcare, but he says student government leaders denied it because it was "based on an opinion."
On Tuesday, Si and advocacy group FIRE - The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education - filed a lawsuit in federal court against EVMS.
EVMS student government leaders approved Si's proposed chapter of Students for a National Health Program the next day, on Wednesday.
"I really wanted this club, I believe my rights were violated," Si told 13News Now. "I want to show that we do want to address the issue of healthcare disparities. I believe my organization is in full accordance with the mission of the school and its values, so honestly, I wasn't expecting this."
According to the lawsuit, the Student Government Association denied the student organization by telling Si in an email: "SGA does not want to create clubs based on opinions, political or otherwise, and the mission and goals of your club do not describe what we believe to be necessary or sustainable for a club."
"It wasn’t a mistake; I think it was clear they didn’t want my viewpoint," Si said. "Quite simply, the debate on healthcare inequality and policy is a political one, you can’t avoid the politics within it."
Si then worked with FIRE to talk with school administrators. FIRE sent a letter on February 2, arguing: "This viewpoint-based rejection of [Students for a National Health Program] violates EVMS’s obligations as a public school bound by the First Amendment and must be reversed."
EVMS Vice President and General Counsel Stacy Purcell responded on February 17, writing: "The proposed club was not denied in any way based on viewpoint or to infringe on free speech or freedom of association, but instead based on the standards set forth in the Criteria for Approval of a New Student Organization. The SGA found that there was incompleteness of ideas, goals and sustainability measures, matters that are considered for every application. The proposed student group also failed to submit a constitution in accordance with the standards. However, the group was invited to reapply and may do so at any time."
FIRE responded on March 15, contesting Purcell's statements. FIRE sent the student group's constitution, saying it was included in the original application.
FIRE also said the SGA didn't tell Si the rationale for denial had to do with missing materials or information, writing: "Instead, the SGA expressly premised its denial on "clubs based on opinions, political or otherwise" and doubts about whether the group’s "mission" was "necessary."
Si said he proceeded to reapply.
"I attempted to fix it, I resubmitted the application and they did not look at it," Si said.
A FIRE press statement says EVMS did not respond to the second letter.
An EVMS spokesperson said a school administrator offered to personally meet with Edward Si in the spring to "help him ensure he had all the necessary support documents for the application but [Si] declined that offer."
Si said the administrator told him SGA leaders do not make decisions about student club applications after October in the academic year, which he believed to be a new requirement created after his original application, so he declined the meeting as he felt benchmarks were changing.
"I wasn’t going to give up without a fight, quite simply," Si said. "This is a big issue to me, I’m very passionate about it."
New SGA leaders approved Si's club on Wednesday, a day after the lawsuit was filed.
The EVMS spokesperson said student government leadership transitions each year and the previous student leaders forgot to remind new leaders that Si's student organization applications were still pending.
The new SGA leaders acted on both Si's proposal and another proposal Wednesday, according to EVMS.
"My understanding is that there was no intent to abridge anyone's First Amendment rights, but rather, that the application had not included all the necessary support," the spokesperson told 13News Now.
Despite the approval of his student organizations, Si said he and FIRE will push forward with the lawsuit until EVMS changes "unconstitutional policies" that allow student government leaders to deny clubs because of their beliefs.
“Looking back on the past few days I believe they did the right thing," Si said of EVMS leadership. "I really hope they continue to do the right thing moving forward, allowing students to promote their ideas."
No EVMS administrator was made available to answer questions from 13News Now.