Court upholds U’s discipline in Facebook comments case

Amanda Tatro made what the U perceived as threatening remarks on Facebook about her mortuary science class.

Evelina Smirnitskaya

 

In December 2009, Amanda Tatro, then a mortuary science student, wrote on Facebook that she wanted to use a trocar âÄî an embalming tool used to let fluids and gas out of a dead body âÄî from her laboratory class âÄúto stab a certain someone in the throat.âÄù

The Minnesota Court of Appeals Monday upheld the University of MinnesotaâÄôs right to discipline a student who posted controversial Facebook posts, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedents that âÄúschools may limit or discipline student expressionâÄù if the expression is proven disruptive.

The comment was one in a series of posts including âÄúgive me room, lots of aggression to be taken out with a trocar,âÄù and âÄúperhaps I will spend the evening updating my Death List #5.âÄù

Tatro later said the posts were satirical in nature and meant to âÄúvent emotionâÄù after she and her fiancée broke up unexpectedly, the Minnesota Daily previously reported.

But the University interpreted the posts as more dangerous than that after three faculty members told police they felt threatened.

The posts were originally reported to the University by another student in the mortuary sciences program. Tatro was briefly banned from the class, and a short police investigation followed.

Though the police concluded no crime was committed and allowed Tatro to return to class, the UniversityâÄôs Campus Committee on Student Behavior held a hearing and ruled she was in violation of the student code of conduct by engaging in âÄúthreatening, harassing, or assaultive conduct.âÄù

Tatro challenged the UniversityâÄôs disciplinary actions, which included her failing the class and having to complete a psychiatric evaluation. She argued that the University didnâÄôt have authority to impose such penalties, and that the punishments infringed her right to free speech.

The committee also put Tatro on academic probation for the duration of her academic career. The ruling was affirmed by the University provost.

In its opinion, the court stated that regardless of the intention behind the posts, the University has an interest in protecting its students and faculty from all potential threats, and therefore its actions were appropriate.

Jordan Kushner, TatroâÄôs lawyer, said he will file an appeal with the Minnesota Supreme Court within the next 30 days.

Tatro is no longer a University student and the âÄúissue is really one of principle.âÄù Kushner said the courtâÄôs ruling misapplied precedent.

He said the court cited cases that addressed junior high and high school students, and canâÄôt be applied to a university.

âÄúItâÄôs obvious that university students should have more leeway in expressing themselves,âÄù Kushner said.

The opinion also addressed the issue of disrespecting the cadavers that were donated to the program. To participate in the lab, Tatro signed form that says she acknowledges the privilege of studying donated bodies. âÄúIt is evident that certain policies and rules regarding treating donors with respect and dignity were explained during the orientation,âÄù and the Facebook posts are evidence Tatro disobeyed those rules, the court wrote.

Mark Rotenberg, the UniversityâÄôs general counsel, said the University prides itself on being âÄúamong the freest places in the entire state of Minnesota for robust debate and speech,âÄù but added that âÄúit isnâÄôt a free-for-all here on campus.âÄù

The University has a right to restrict verbally abusive or potentially threatening speech, he said.

âÄúNot all speech is protected by the First Amendment.âÄù

He said the UniversityâÄôs disciplinary proceedings are usually affirmed by the court when challenged.

âÄúWe are gratified by the Court of Appeals decision,âÄù he said.