Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Court Rejects Challenge To School Discipline For Facebook Post

The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that the University of Minnesota did not violate a student's free speech rights in imposing discipline upon her.

The student is enrolled in the Mortuary Science Program. She posted Facebook statements described as "satirical commentary and violent fantasies about her school experience."

The school conducted a proceeding and determined that she violated the student conduct code in that she failed to follow rules that govern the "privilege of access to human cadavers."

The sanction imposed was a failing grade in an anatomy lab course, and other conditions that included probation for the remainder of her time as a student.

The posts at issue violated a policy signed by students to respect their cadaver. The policy specifically prohibited cadaver-related blogging.

The student posted four items, some of which referred to her cavader as "Bernie."

The last post:

Realized with great sadness that my best friend Bernie will no longer be with me as of Friday next. I wish to accompany him to the retort. Now where will I go or who will I hang with when I need to gather my sanity? Bye Bye Bernie. Lock of hair in my pocket.

She testified that her uniquely challenging circumstances (set forth in the opinion) cause her to use sarcastic and dark humor to deal with depression. She did not intend her posts to be seen outside of her group of friends. 

The court concluded that the University's policies regarding discipline of students for program policy violations was narrowly-tailored and directly related to standards governing aspiring morticians.

The court did not address the separate question of whether the University can discipline a student for the violent "fantasies" expressed on the Facebook page. The disciplined student had brought the issues and posts to the attention of the media during the investigation.

The unanswered question is an exceptionally important one to school administrators everywhere. The matter was brought to the attention of school administrators by students who read the posts and feared for thoer safety after reading statements about such things as using and concealing sharp embalming tools.

The arguments before the court were reported on by Abovethelaw had this earlier coverage. (Mike Frisch)

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