Court: Facebook posts about student’s lab cadaver justified punishment

Tatro received her diploma in her chosen field in November 2011.

But she appealed the university’s punishment to the Minnesota Court of Appeals and, upon losing there, asked the state Supreme Court to review the case, arguing that her free speech rights were violated and the Facebook posts were “outside her professional education activities.”

Tatro said her Facebook page was a “literary device to express her emotions,” and that she did not reveal personally identifiable facts or information about the cadaver she was studying.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that it was grappling with a novel issue.

“The factual situation presented by this appeal has not been addressed in any published court decision—a university’s imposition of disciplinary sanctions for a student’s Facebook posts that violated academic program rules. Consequently, the constitutional standard that applies in this context is unsettled,” Justice Helen Meyer wrote for the court.

In its ruling, the court rejected some arguments made by the university. It said the university can’t say it was right to limit a student’s Facebook postings to meet a “legitimate pedagogical objective,” because the postings aren’t “school-sponsored” speech.

The court also said Tatro’s postings didn’t meet a standard that has allowed high schools and junior high schools to limit off-campus speech likely to cause a “substantial disruption” of school activities.

But the court noted that state law requires mortuary professionals to treat the dead “with dignity and respect.” It said the university could discipline Tatro for the postings because they violated narrowly tailored program rules “directly related to established professional conduct standards.”

The court also noted that university’s rules and policies governing treatment of cadavers are essential to making sure people are willing to donate their bodies to the university.

Tatro’s lawyer, Jordan Kushner, said he was disappointed in the ruling. But he said the standard set by the justices on whether a university can discipline a student for Facebook postings was narrower than that of the appellate court.

Raleigh Levine, a William Mitchell College of Law professor who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the court rejected the idea that a student could be forced to waive free speech rights as a condition of attending a course.

Levine also said the court rejected the chance to extend limits of speech placed on high school students to the college level.

“The facts of this case were so unusual and so particular,” Levine said. “In many ways, the university won this particular battle, but it lost the war.”

“I’m looking at it as a glass-half-full decision,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief out of concern that a ruling in the case might affect the free speech rights of student journalists.

“We would prefer there would be a bright line that says what students say on their own time is their own business,” LoMonte said.