University of Minnesota Social Media Case ‘Could Give Colleges Virtually Limitless Authority to Silence Speech’

The Student Press Law Center has been valiantly raising awareness of a court battle that its executive director Frank LoMonte calls “a gigantic case that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves.”

The case: Tatro v. University of Minnesota.

The gist, according to an SPLC report: “Amanda Tatro, a former student in the mortuary sciences department at the University of Minnesota, posted comments to her Facebook wall in November and December 2009 about ‘playing’ with her cadaver in her anatomy course and wanting ‘to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar,’ a needle-like embalming tool. . . . The university filed a formal complaint against Tatro in late December 2009, alleging her comments were threatening and in violation of the rules of the mortuary science program. . . . [A UM committee] ruled that Tatro must take an F in the anatomy course, undergo a psychiatric evaluation and be placed on academic probation.”  Tatro is suing the school for violating her free speech rights.

The larger implications: Tatro made the apparently sarcastic comments on her personal social network, off campus.  Should schools be allowed to monitor and punish students for their social media behavior simply because they find it distasteful?

A higher ed. environment suffused with a watch-what-you-say-about-your-school-at-all-times-especially-if-it’s-critical mindset does not exactly scream First Amendment.   The related consequences for campus media are also potentially enormous.

In a recent opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, LoMonte argues, “If the justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court lose sight of the larger constitutional issues, the outcome in the case could give colleges virtually limitless authority to silence speech critical of their programs, no matter where it is uttered. . . . While colleges clearly may discipline students for off-campus criminal behavior, the idea that colleges have free-floating good-citizenship authority to punish lawful behavior that administrators subjectively deem ‘disruptive’ is breathtaking in its potential for abuse.”

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