The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled June 20 that the University of Minnesota did not violate a mortuary student’s free speech rights by punishing her for Facebook posts about the school cadaver she was working on, which included “satirical commentary and violent fantasy.”
But the court, in what might be the nation’s first state high court decision addressing college students’ online free speech rights, said the sanctions imposed by the university on Amanda Tatro were justified by “narrowly tailored” rules directly related to “established professional conduct standards.”
Although Tatro lost her case, some free speech advocates said they were relieved by the ruling’s limits, which they said applied only to the online conduct of a student in a professional program.
University of Minnesota General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said he was “very pleased” by the court’s decision, which he said marks the first time either a state supreme court or a federal appellate court has decided whether a public university can discipline a student for an online posting.
“The university is not interested in restricting free speech in general,” Rotenberg said.
“This is a case about enforcing professional standards and norms” in professional disciplines that also could include law, medicine, or teaching, Rotenberg said.
In November and December 2009, while a junior in the university’s mortuary science program, Tatro referred to the cadaver on Facebook as “Bernie,” a reference to the movie “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
She also wrote, “I still want to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar though,” and “Give me room, lots of aggression to be taken out with a trocar.”
A trocar is a long, hollow needle used during embalming to release gas and fluids from the body.
Tatro also wrote “Hmm, perhaps I will spend the evening updating my ‘Death List #5,’ ” and that she would soon stop seeing “my best friend, Bernie,” adding “Bye, bye Bernie. Lock of hair in my pocket.”
After learning about the Facebook postings, the university filed a formal complaint, alleging that Tatro engaged in “threatening, harassing, or assaultive conduct.”
In addition, the university said she violated the anatomy laboratory course rules, which included using respectful language when discussing cadavers and refraining from “blogging” about the anatomy lab or the cadaver dissection.
The postings caused university staff members to be concerned for their safety, according to officials, and faculty members suggested that Tatro should have been expelled from the mortuary science program.
But the university gave her an “F” for the anatomy class and required her to take a clinical ethics course and undergo a psychiatric exam. Tatro also was placed on academic probation for the rest of her undergraduate career.