Denver Post – CU School of Medicine plans to cut ties with Denver Health doctor over racist Facebook comments
Dr. Michelle Herren, a pediatric anesthesiologist, posted remarks about First Lady Michelle Obama
By TOM MCGHEE
The University of Colorado’s School of Medicine is planning to cut ties with Dr. Michelle Herren, a faculty member and pediatric anesthesiologist, who made a racist remark on Facebook.
“We are beginning the process to terminate Dr. Herren’s faculty appointment,” Mark Couch, spokesman for the school, said Thursday. “She has expressed values that are at odds with ours and she has compromised her ability to meet the teaching and patient care mission of the School of Medicine.”
Herren, who works at Denver Health Medical Center, holds a non-paid faculty appointment at the CU School of Medicine and a medical staff appointment at Children’s Hospital, where Denver Health physicians supervise residents and other medical practitioners in training.
Herren responded to a Facebook post praising First Lady Michelle Obama with the statement: “Monkey face and poor ebonic English!!! There! I feel better and am still not racist!!! Just calling it like it is!”
It remains unclear whether Denver Health will take similar action against her.
“We are bumping up against a first amendment right,” said Kelli Christensen, Denver Health spokeswoman. “A lot of people are working very hard to resolve this situation.”
After The Denver Post and other media covered the story, first reported by Denver7, the hospital said Herren would not be seeing patients or providing anesthesia services there until further notice.
Denver Health also released a statement saying that officials were offended by the comments, which were made while Herren was “acting independently in her private capacity.”
First Amendment protections for those in the public sector make it difficult to terminate or otherwise take action against an employee for offensive statements outside the workplace, according to legal experts.
“Government employers can impose restrictions on statements made within the workplace or referring to the workplace, but they can’t act on statements made outside of the workplace unless they show a substantial likelihood of material impact on the employee’s performance or disruption within the workplace,” said Steven D. Zansberg, a First Amendment lawyer in Denver.
The hospital is “a political subdivision of the state,” Christensen said.
But a private employer can fire someone for comments made outside the work place, even if there is no obvious impact on their business, without worrying about First Amendment protections, said Lorri Ray, a lawyer with Mountain States Employers Council.
If the public spotlight on the comments has an impact on the hospital, its legal department might find it easier to take adverse employment action, Ray said. “But I’m sure the lawyers are looking at it very carefully because the right of free speech is protected in the public sector.”
In a letter obtained by The Denver Post, Dr. John Reilly Jr., the CU vice chancellor for health affairs, expressed concern to Herren over the remarks, saying community members distributed them to CU Regents, the School of Medicine, affiliated hospitals and local media.
“I ask that you inform me of your perspective on whether you can continue to teach effectively given the multiple communications I have received from students, faculty and public expressing their opinion that your posting demonstrates that you should not be involved in the education of our students,” he wrote.
Reilly’s letter also suggests that Herren’s comments has caused wide-spread damage. “Your comments and tone are harmful to the students we teach and the patients we care for,” he wrote. “Your derogatory, insensitive remarks have resulted in harm to others in our community and beyond.”
CU’s Board of Regents requires faculty members “to remember that the public may judge their profession and institution by their utterances,” he wrote.