Free-speech groups defend Minn. college student punished for jokes on Facebook


SPLC Urges Minnesota Supreme Court to Affirm Students’ Rights to Speak Freely Off-Campus About School Matters





FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director 703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday, the Student Press Law Center urged the Minnesota Supreme Court to uphold the First Amendment rights of college students to use Facebook and other social-networking sites to comment on school policies and events without fear of retaliation.

The SPLC filed its Nov. 7 brief in support of Amanda Tatro, a University of Minnesota mortuary science student who was punished after a classmate reported discomfort with a joking remark on Tatro’s Facebook page, which Tatro wrote on her personal time while off campus. A lower court upheld the university’s punishment of Tatro, disregarding Tatro’s argument that students are entitled to greater First Amendment freedoms when speaking off campus.

“There is no surer way to suppress students’ civic involvement than to tell them that talking about their schools off campus—even if attempting to engage public support on matters of public concern—will be punishable if the school, in its deferentially reviewed discretion, decides that the speech has the potential to provoke a ‘disruptive’ level of on-campus discussion,” the SPLC said in the brief.

The SPLC is a nonprofit organization founded in 1974 to advocate for the free-press rights of student journalists. The Center was joined in the brief by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Inc., a nonprofit that defends the individual liberties of college students. The SPLC’s brief was prepared and filed with the assistance of volunteer attorney Dawn VanTassel, a partner in the Minneapolis office of Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand, LLP.

The University of Minnesota opened a criminal investigation in December 2009 after a classmate complained that one of Tatro’s Facebook posts – joking about stabbing someone with a dissecting knife, in reference to an ex-boyfriend – made her feel unsafe. Police concluded that Tatro posed no true threat and closed the case, but the university initiated a disciplinary case based on that Facebook post and on two others in which she joked about nicknaming the cadaver she was assigned to dissect.

A disciplinary committee decided, and the university provost agreed, that Tatro should receive a failing grade for the anatomy lab class, take an ethics course, circulate an apology letter, undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and spend the rest of her college career on academic probation. Tatro appealed the sanctions to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals ruled in July 2011 that Tatro’s speech was punishable under the same standard that would apply to the on-campus speech of a high school student – the standard that the U.S. Supreme Court created in the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in the context of an on-campus anti-war protest. The Tinker standard enables schools to punish students based on the content of their speech – something government agencies normally cannot do – if they can show that the speech threatened to substantially disrupt classwork.

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, said that although the case ostensibly involves jokes posted on Facebook, the legal standard adopted by the Minnesota court also will govern colleges’ level of control over students’ online journalistic and editorial work.

“The Tinker standard may strike the proper balance when minors are speaking to a captive audience at a K-12 school, but it has no place on the campus of a college, let alone off the campus of a college on a student’s personal Web page,” LoMonte said.

LoMonte said the most troubling part of the case was the lower court’s acceptance of the school’s rationale that Tatro “substantially disrupted” school because news coverage about the controversy caused some supporters of the university’s mortuary program to call expressing concern and to waver in their support of the program.

“Extending the Tinker level of control to a college student’s off-campus speech will be the end of investigative journalism or whistle-blowing. If the lower court is not reversed, it literally will be the case in Minnesota that a public university can order its students never to say or write anything – no matter where, no matter when – that might alienate the college’s donors,” LoMonte said.

“The University of Minnesota should be embarrassed to stand in front of a court asserting its intention to treat its students like 12-year-olds,” LoMonte said. “Many of the University of Minnesota’s students are adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who are old enough to sign contracts, get married, purchase firearms and join the military. They are entitled to the full benefit of the Constitution that some of them have risked their lives in battle to defend when they are speaking outside of class time using their own personal Web pages.”

No time has been set for the Court to hear or decide the case. Tatro is represented by Minneapolis attorney Jordan S. Kushner.

More information about the work of the Student Press Law Center is available on its website at www.splc.org.

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