Dr. Michelle Herren voluntarily resigned on Friday to her position at Denver Health Medical Center after posting racist comments on her Facebook private account. Herren’s opinion on Michelle Obama went viral after a common friend saw her remarks and informed Denver Health and the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine about her behavior online.

Herren, a pediatric anesthesiologist, and Denver Health mutually agreed to her resignation after her controversial opinion outraged the public, especially patients and the UC’s School of Medicine community, where she was a non-paid faculty member. The University also cut ties with the physician.

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama
U.S. first lady Michelle Obama laughs at comedian Jimmy Kimmel at the White House Correspondents Association annual dinner in Washington April 28, 2012. Image credit: Reuters/Larry Downing.

Herren responded to a post that praised Michelle Obama for her eloquence. The physician said first: “Doesn’t seem to be speaking too eloquently here, thank god we can’t hear her!” on a post that included a picture of Obama with her face contorted in a scream. “Harvard??? That’s a place for ‘entitled’ folks said all the liberals!,” posted Dr. Herren referring to Michelle Obama’s degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

Dr. Herren’s situation was complicated since the hospital is a public entity and could not fire the anesthesiologist regardless of how offensive her comments were, because she made them as part of her private life, without directly involving Denver Health. The hospital was constrained by both state and federal law, including First Amendment right of free speech.

The comment that started controversy online and later at Denver Health and the University of Colorado was: “Monkey face and poor ebonic English!!! There! I feel better and am still not racist!!! Just calling it like it is!.”

JoAnn Nietto was the friend in common Herren had with the person that praised Obama. Nietto informed Denver Health and the CU Board about Herren’s posts on Facebook earlier this week. Herren also holds a medical staff appointment at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Before Herren’s voluntary resignation Friday, Denver Health announced Thursday that the anesthesiologist would not be seeing patients nor providing anesthesia services at the hospital “until further notice.” Dr. Herren worked at Denver Health for ten years and earned $363 thousand annually. The hospital said on Friday there would be no further comments on the matter. 

The University of Colorado did not accept Herren’s behavior 

The University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine said Thursday that they were beginning the process to terminate Dr. Michelle Herren’s faculty appointment after her comments on Michelle Obama became viral. “We’ve had several students express concern through our office of diversity,” said the School’s spokesperson Mark Couch.

The university considered that Herren’s values are contradictory to the institution’s moral saying that her comments on Michelle Obama compromised her ability to meet the teaching and patient care mission of the School of Medicine, added Mark Couch.

Michelle Obama Letter
The letter sent to Dr. Michelle Herren. Image credit: University of Colorado Denver via The Denver Post.

Dr. John Reilly Jr., the CU vice chancellor for health affairs, addressed a letter to Dr. Herren on November 30 expressing his concerns over the remarks she made on Facebook. The vice chancellor let Dr. Herren know that her opinion on First Lady Michelle Obama was distributed by community members to CU Board of Regents, the School of Medicine, affiliated hospitals, and local media.

Dr. Reilly Jr. stated that the School of Medicine’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion had been contacted by concerned people after her racist comments became viral.

He continued and reminded Dr. Herren that their profession’s primary obligation was to take care of others and added that her posts on Facebook were harmful to the students and the patients who are close to the CU School of Medicine. Dr. Reilly added that her remarks were derogatory and insensitive and advised Dr. Herren to be “more thoughtful” in how she expresses her opinions.

Dr. Reilly quoted school’s laws reminding Dr. Herren that all faculty members have to be accurate at all times and show respect for the opinions of others. He also wrote that he expected Dr. Herren to take her responsibility to serve everyone with compassion seriously. The vice chancellor expressed his concerns regarding her ability to teach CU’s diverse group of students and trainees.

He ended the letter, obtained by The Denver Post, saying: “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.”

First Amendment protection: You cannot be fired for expressing your opinion in your private capacity if you work for the public sector

Legal experts have explained that Herren’s situation was challenging because she worked at Denver Health, a public hospital. No matter how racist her comments were, the hospital could not fire Herren for expressing her opinion outside the workplace. Government employers can limit what people say inside the institution but cannot restrict what employees say in their private capacity, Steven D. Zansberg, a First Amendment lawyer in Denver told The Denver Post.

If Herren would have worked for a private entity the case would have been different since an employee can be dismissed for comments made outside the workplace, even when the remarks do not have an impact on the company, said Lorri Ray, a lawyer at Mountain States Employers Council, according to The Denver Post.

Source: The Denver Post