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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

College student’s Facebook status reaches Minnesota Supreme Court

A case involving a former University of Minnesota student’s Facebook posts reached the Minnesota Supreme Court last Wednesday and could have far-reaching implications for college students’ free speech online.

The case, involving former Minnesota mortuary science student Amanda Tatro, began in 2009 when Tatro posted Facebook status updates in which she nicknamed a cadaver “Bernie,” referencing a 1980s film, but also made threatening comments regarding the use of knives and laboratory tools in potentially stabbing an individual (who was later found to be Tatro’s ex-boyfriend).

Tatro was reported to her professor and the department chair by a fellow student, and the professors talked to university police. Tatro claimed the comments were sarcastic and just a way to vent after a bad week, but her professors felt threatened by the stabbing comments. After meeting with Tatro, police found that no crime had been committed.

Months later, however, a student conduct committee declared Tatro’s comments disrespectful and threatening and ruled they violated the university’s rules for the mortuary science program. The university then gave Tatro a failing grade for the class in question and required her to enroll in an ethics class, undergo a psychiatric examination and write a letter to faculty about respect.

She was also placed on academic probation for her remaining time at the university.

Tatro then appealed unsuccessfully to both a university committee and the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and the latter ruled free speech may be compromised when it involves “disruptive complaints” regarding university sanctions or involvements. The university argues the comments were disruptive because it received complaints from the families of those who had donated their bodies to the mortuary science program.

Erik Ugland, a Marquette associate professor of broadcast and electronic communication, agreed that school officials have vested interests in ensuring that student speech does not threaten others.

“The courts have really struggled with this issue, and this is one of the first instances in which this kind of conflict has arisen at a public university,” Ugland said. “In this instance, however, the student’s speech concerned an issue that is very sensitive — the handling of cadavers, bodies that families had donated to the university to advance students’ education in mortuary science.”

Ugland said the case involves questioning if “interests justify the punishment of expression that occurs entirely off campus,” hitting on an issue that has become the center of the surrounding debate.

Tatro’s supporters have argued that if the court rules in favor of the university, it could give universities power to discipline any off-campus — and potentially online — comments that they disagree with. The University of Minnesota and higher education associations supporting it fear they will not be able to uphold professional standards if Tatro wins the case.

Marquette law professor Joseph Hylton said he is not surprised that this case advanced to the Supreme Court since it involves a constitutional claim.

While Tatro had the right to appeal the university’s decision at her state school, assistant law professor Bruce Boyden said Marquette’s policies drastically differ.

“Marquette students would not have the same right to appeal a disciplinary decision of the university because Marquette is not a state institution,” Boyden said. “Neither the First Amendment nor state administrative law applies to decisions made by Marquette administrators.”

Boyden added that Marquette students may present potential claims should they argue a breach of contract or a violation of state or federal anti-discrimination laws.

Marquette associate political science professor John McAdams said the separation between private and state schools is no excuse for dismissing behavioral expectations. He mentioned a similar case in the Marquette Dental School in 2005 in which a student was suspended for blogging inappropriately about a faculty member. According to Marquette’s policies, the consequences were at the university’s discretion as the student did not appeal the case, according to an article on McAdams’ blog, the Marquette Warrior.

“I think that she (Trato) needed a fatherly talking-to by a faculty member or dean, with the advice that such online posts were less than professional and needed to be taken down,” McAdams said.

Ugland agreed, and said off-campus speech is often difficult to regulate.

Ugland argued for a separation between on-campus speech and postings on unaffiliated sites such as Facebook and said the University of Minnesota’s rulings were extreme, as the student’s punishments far exceeded the seriousness of her actions.

Hylton also said Facebook should be viewed as a separate entity, although actions such as slander would likely be grounds for discipline both in the private and public systems. He concluded that if this case happened in Wisconsin a similar ruling would likely be found.

Tatro has said she will appeal to the United States Supreme Court if she loses at the state level.

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