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University of Minnesota defends disciplining student for Facebook comments

Court case could help determine the boundaries of student free speech online

At issue in the case: Whether universities have a right to discipline students for online comments made from off-campus computers.

The Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments Feb. 8 about whether a former University of Minnesota mortuary science student had a constitutional right to free speech when she posted remarks about her lab cadaver on her Facebook page.

Amanda Tatro of Minneapolis wrote the statements in November and early December 2009. “Who knew embalming lab was so cathartic!” she said. “I still want to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar though.”

A trocar is a sharp instrument used to drain body cavities before embalming. She said later that “a certain someone” was a former boyfriend.

She also referred to her cadaver as “Bernie,” a reference to the movie, “Weekend at Bernie’s.” She mentioned taking out “aggression” on the body, “updating my Death List #5″ and hiding the trocar “under my sleeve” during lab.

The university disciplined her. She appealed that ruling to the Court of Appeals and, upon losing there, asked the state Supreme Court to review it.

Her attorney, Jordan Kushner, said that Tatro was off campus when she filed the comments, that she didn’t identify the cadaver by name, and that she didn’t describe the dissection procedure in detail, which the student rules forbid.

“It would not be constitutionally reasonable for the university to restrict that speech,” Kushner said.

The five Supreme Court justices in attendance at the state Capitol in St. Paul drilled both Tatro’s attorney and counsel for the university, although Kushner seemed to get the bulk of the interrogation.

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