Free-speech groups urge Kansas court to set boundaries for college punitive authority over students' off-campus social media speech





FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 9, 2015
Contact: Frank LoMonte, Executive Director
director@splc.org or 202-872-1704

College students should be protected against disciplinary sanctions for purely off-campus behavior on social media, free-speech groups told the Kansas Court of Appeals in a case involving a college student expelled for crude insults posted to a personal Twitter account.

In the case of Yeasin v. University of Kansas, the university expelled petroleum engineering student Navid Yeasin on the grounds of violating a university order against contacting his former girlfriend, who had a restraining order against him because of past dating violence. The university found that Yeasin violated the no-contact order when he posted insulting, profane remarks venting about his “crazy ass ex” on Twitter, even though the account was non-public and his ex-girlfriend was blocked from directly viewing it. None of the posts indicated that Yeasin contemplated violence.

Attorneys for the university argue that the speech was punishable because it constituted a “true threat” and because the university has a duty to prevent gender-based harassment to comply with the federal Title IX anti-discrimination law. But in September 2014, a Kansas district court judge disagreed and found that the university had overreached because it punished Yeasin under disciplinary rules that apply only to on-campus behavior. The university is appealing to the Kansas Court of Appeals.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday, the Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education argue that college disciplinary authorities cannot disregard First Amendment boundaries by arguing that violating the Constitution is necessary to keep the university in compliance with Title IX. The brief also argues that the university’s position – that name-calling on social media can be a “true threat” – is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s narrow understanding of threat speech and would risk criminalizing everyday social disagreements.

“While Mr. Yeasin is far from a ‘model citizen’ and deserves to be amply punished for genuinely violent or threatening behavior, defense of the First Amendment often requires defending the speech of distasteful speakers with whom we’d prefer not to associate, such as the Westboro Baptist Church’s anti-gay protestors. Just as the Supreme Court told us that the government may not punish the speech of anti-gay religious demonstrators to silence their message, there are boundaries that public universities cannot not cross if students are to be safe from disciplinary overreactions,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“This case provides an opportunity for the Kansas courts to recognize some rational stopping point where college punitive authority cannot follow students into their off-campus lives. While Mr. Yeasin’s speech addresses matters of purely private concern, a ruling that gives universities punitive authority over off-campus social media speech equivalent to their on-campus regulatory authority would be extraordinarily dangerous for whistleblowers and journalists,” LoMonte said. “Social media increasingly is where news coverage is being delivered, and because colleges at times aggressively censor speech in the on-campus media outlets they subsidize, there must be some uncensored platform that is beyond the shadow of university punitive authority.”

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center conducts workshops on media-law developments across the country and provides free legal research and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on its website at www.splc.org.


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