EDITORIAL: Facebook v. Universities, Minnesota edition

A mortuary sciences student from the University of Minnesota is in court for a Facebook post involving a photo of a cadaver and a joke about slitting her ex-fiancee’s throat. Creepy joke, or threatening violation of university policy?

That’s exactly what the Minnesota Supreme Court has to decide.

According to the Minnesota Daily, Amanda Tatro posted she wanted to “stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar” and that she updated her “Death List #5,” while also posting a video of a cadaver she was working on in the mortuary science lab which she nicknamed “Bernie,” after the popular 80s movie “Weekend at Bernie’s.”

A fellow mortuary sciences student reported her to their professor, the university police and their program director. The university police found that no crime was committed, but according to the Minnesota Daily, a student conduct committee “ruled the posts were threatening and disrespectful — a violation of conduct codes and of rules for the Anatomy Bequest Program, which provides bodies for mortuary science students to learn embalming.”

Tatro has since appealed the decision and it has made it all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Lower appellate courts have thus far ruled in favor of the university.

We here at the Tribune think that despite the odd nature of the case, it is going to have a huge impact on the future of universities’ control over social media.

Regardless of whether Minnesota is willing to admit it, Tatro’s case — which has potential to go beyond the state supreme court — could set a dangerous precedent for future cases involving free speech, social networking sites and universities.

Ruling in favor of Tatro could prevent universities from enforcing their honor codes with actions like mandating ethics classes, dropping grades or requiring students to write papers and apology letters, to name a few. People would not be responsible for breaking codes if they could argue it fell under free speech, like Tatro is trying to do.

On the other hand, if Tatro’s appeal loses and the University of Minnesota wins, there would be important implications for universities everywhere, including Marquette. Administrations could then regulate anything we post on Facebook if they could argue it is threatening or violating some sort of contract, such as the one mortuary science students sign at Minnesota when dealing with cadavers.

Essentially, coming down on the side of the university will allow schools to infringe on any form of Internet speech, so long as they can make a case that it might “disrupt” the university’s mission or be deemed “threatening.”

For Marquette, this would include any protest or student demonstration that is organized through Facebook, status updates about homework, teachers, other students, athletics … the list could go on and on. There would be no limit to the amount of content the administration would be allowed to review, even if — like in Tatro’s case — the comments were made online.

We aren’t saying that threatening comments should be tolerated, but it seems Tatro’s were not threatening to the university or her mortuary sciences program. However, ruling in favor the university would lead to many more problems than solutions on social media issues. Ruling in favor of the University of Minnesota, in this case, is clearly the worse precedent to set.

The court’s ruling will definitely apply to the state of Minnesota, but if the university wins, there are possible ramifications for the entire country, including Wisconsin.

Tatro’s circumstances may have been unusual, but that doesn’t deny her right to free speech on Facebook, especially when off-campus. Yes, school codes — especially those in the premedical professions — should be adhered to because of patient confidentiality and other factors. However, this incident had nothing to do with the school itself; it just happened to relate to the mortuary sciences curriculum and lesson that day.

We can’t punish every angsty 20-something because they had a bad day and decided to let the whole world know on Facebook. As long as a person’s speech isn’t genuinely threatening to the institution, it should be upheld by the First Amendment, plain and simple.

Taking away students’ rights to free speech on Facebook is a dangerous precedent to set — a precedent we do not want to see happen.

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