Free speech comes first

The University should support free speech and clarify conduct codes.

The vagueness of the University of Minnesota’s various student conduct policies and its actions in the civil case against former student Amanda Tatro threaten all students’ free expression.

In fall 2009, Tatro, a mortuary science student at the time, posted a Facebook status update that was seen as a threat and reported to faculty. The police questioned Tatro but found no crime. They also pointed to the contract she signed with the Anatomy Bequest Program that laid out policies for handling cadavers as part of her mortuary science lab. In earlier status updates, she referred to her cadaver by a made-up name and to her class, an alleged violation of that contract.

Now Tatro has brought that case to the state Supreme Court asserting the University violated her First Amendment rights.

As an institution of higher education, the University should know the harm of so harshly punishing a student for speech. The administration has pointed to the seriousness of her violation in how it affected the feelings of potential cadaver donors. But what will happen the next time a student criticizes an aspect of University research or wasteful administration that, in turn, reduces a donor’s willingness to give money?

The student conduct code gives the University the license to punish students for off-campus expression that “adversely affects a substantial University interest and either constitutes a criminal offense … or indicates that the student may present a danger or threat.”

In the Tatro case, it seems highly questionable whether the University stayed within its bounds. Whether in the student code or program contracts, the University should support free speech and avoid broad and unclear wording.