Court of Appeals: Facebook posts were grounds for U of M to discipline student

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today upheld the University of Minnesota’s right to discipline a student in a mortuary sciences class who made jokes about a cadaver and made threats on her Facebook page.

In a series of posts in 2009, Amanda Tatro first posted a reference to a cadaver:

Amanda Beth Tatro Gets to play, I mean dissect, Bernie[2] today. Lets see if I can have a lab void of reprimanding and having my scalpel taken away. Perhaps if I just hide it in my sleeve . . . .

In a subsequent Facebook post, Tatro appears to have threatened someone…

Amanda Beth Tatro: Who knew embalming lab was so cathartic! I still want to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar though.[4] Hmm..perhaps I will spend the evening updating my “Death List #5” and making friends with the crematory guy. I do know the code . . . .

After the posts, the University banned her from campus for a time, then flunked her out of the course.

Tatro claimed the action violated her right to free speech, but the Court of Appeals said schools may limit or discipline student expression if school officials ‘reasonably conclude that it will materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.'”

Her Facebook posts did just that, the court said:

Beyond the university‟s concern for the safety of its students and faculty, Tatro‟s posts presented substantial concerns about the integrity of the anatomy-bequest program. Tatro‟s posts eventually reached families of anatomy-bequest-program donors and funeral directors, causing them to contact the university, expressing dismay and concern about Tatro‟s conduct and to question the professionalism of the program in general–a program that relies heavily on the faith and confidence of donors and their families to provide necessary laboratory experiences for medical and mortuary-science students. Indeed, the rules requiring respect and professionalism in the sensitive area of mortuary science appear designed to ensure ongoing trust in this relationship, and Tatro agreed to be bound by these rules as a condition of her access to a human donor. Because Tatro‟s Facebook posts materially and substantially disrupted the work and discipline of the university, we conclude that the university did not violate Tatro‟s First Amendment rights by responding with appropriate disciplinary sanctions.

Tatro also argued that the U of M didn’t have authority to discipline her because the activity to which it objected took place off campus. “Whether or not Tatro intended her posts to be satire or mere venting does not diminish the university’s substantial interest in protecting the safety of its students and faculty and addressing potentially threatening conduct,” the Court of Appeals said. It added that in these times, schools need to watch for and respond to student behavior that indicates a potential for violence.

Here’s the full opinion from the court.