SPLC responds to ruling in University of Minnesota “facebook discipline” case


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

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”), a nonprofit legal-assistance organization that supports student journalists nationwide, released the following statement Wednesday in response to the Minnesota Supreme Court’s June 20 ruling in Tatro v. University of Minnesota.

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said:

“The University of Minnesota made an audacious grab for unlimited authority over its students’ off-campus speech, and fortunately for all students, the Supreme Court slammed the door in its face. The most important aspect of this ruling was the categorical rejection of the university’s argument that a college student’s off-campus speech is entitled to no greater First Amendment protection than a high school student’s speech on a class assignment. That argument was plainly frivolous, and it received the dismissive response it deserved.

Last July’s Court of Appeals ruling, which said Amanda’s speech was unprotected by the First Amendment because it ‘disrupted’ the campus by causing donors to waver in supporting the university, was an ill-considered decision that put the safety of all bloggers, commentators and whistleblowers in peril. It is a huge relief that the Supreme Court has overturned that finding of ‘disruption’ so that journalists can be confident that merely exposing school wrongdoing in a way that undermines public support for the school remains First Amendment-protected speech.

Although the court seems to have confined colleges’ discretion to the rare occasion when speech violates established standards of a professional program, the fact that we are talking at all about colleges regulating students’ Facebook posts shows how badly the First Amendment has been eroded. All of us will have to be vigilant that colleges understand this as a narrow, limited decision and not an invitation to impose subjective ‘good behavior’ standards over everything students say or do in their off-campus lives.”

By way of background, Amanda Tatro was disciplined by the University of Minnesota for joking remarks on her personal Facebook page – created off-campus using a home computer – that the university regarded as reflecting unfitness for her chosen profession, mortuary science. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled 5-0 Wednesday that, while the university’s punishment did not violate Tatro’s First Amendment rights, a public college’s authority to discipline students for the content of their speech is limited to speech that violates “established professional conduct standards.”

The SPLC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Tatro, arguing that the Minnesota Court of Appeals’ July 2011 ruling gave colleges too much latitude to punish speech by applying the Supreme Court’s Tinker standard, a legal standard that was created in the context of on-campus speech before a captive listening audience in K-12 schools. The Supreme Court declined to follow the Court of Appeals in applying Tinker, and instead decided the case on the narrower grounds of “professional conduct standards.”