Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

Summary:A student has taken her former university to the Supreme Court over free speech rights.

A former University of Minnesota science student's appeal to the Supreme Court has resulted in the university defending their decision to discipline the student over Facebook status messages.

The Minnesota Supreme Court heard arguments last week concerning how much freedom of speech a student is entitled to on social networks -- and therefore whether the academic institution was justifiable in its actions of disciplining the student Amanda Tatro after she posted about her lab cadaver on Facebook.

Statements were written on her Facebook profile in 2009. Among the remarks were:

"Who knew embalming lab was so cathartic! I still want to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar though."

A trocar is an instrument used to drain body cavities before it goes under the embalming process, and 'a certain someone', in the frequent practice of indirect and emotional Facebook statuses, was apparently a former boyfriend who had broken up with her the night before.

Among other messages, Tatro referenced her cadaver as 'Bernie', that she took out 'aggression' on the corpse, and she was 'updating her Death List #5' whilst hiding the instrument 'under her sleeve' during lab sessions. She expressed sadness at 'losing her best friend Bernie' and also implied she had stashed away a lock of his hair.

Once the university viewed the messages through another mortuary student's reports, they disciplined her. Tatro's grade dropped from a C+ to an F, she was made to enroll in an ethics course, write an apologetic letter and also has to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Tatro was also placed on academic probation in the last year of study as an undergraduate.

The former student took the matter to the Court of Appeals, and after losing the case, asked the state Supreme Court to review it. The university wishes to defend its decision to discipline her; Tatro views the matter as a violation of her rights to free speech.

Tatro's attorney, Jordan Kushner, stated that the student was off campus when the remarks were made, the cadaver was not identified by its true name, and no procedures were described in detail -- something that student rules forbid. Therefore, "It would not be constitutionally reasonable for the university to restrict that speech," according to Kushner.

It may have begun with a simple Facebook status update, but social networks are finding themselves more frequently being discussed in courts across the West. This is the first Facebook and First Amendment case that the Minnesota Supreme Court has reviewed, and has the potential to become a landmark case that could alter the current, blurred rules concerning social media and free speech rights.

This goes beyond academic prerogatives and Facebook -- instead, this ruling could set a standard for how universities are able to punish students for activities off-campus. Due to this, both civil liberties and higher education groups have joined the battle, adding momentum to the fight. Filing support for each side, each viewpoint believes the case will have damaging side effects if the other wins.

To the former student and supportive civil liberty organisations, the case may define free student speech of campus -- although in any terms, attempting to regulate every form of speech while a student is contractually bound to a university would be extremely difficult. Currently, no higher education groups have stated their support for the student.

The university and their backing higher education groups are more concerned over safety and professional standards, no matter where a code of conduct has been violated. If the academic institution lose the battle, it could mean that students cannot have their grades lowered or be punished for what is considered to be breaking codes of conduct if they are not on campus grounds.

The case will be decided within the next few months.

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Topics: Social Enterprise

About

Charlie Osborne, a medical anthropologist who studied at the University of Kent, UK, is a journalist, freelance photographer and former teacher. She has spent years travelling and working across Europe and the Middle East as a teacher, and has been involved in the running of businesses ranging from media and events to B2B sales. Charli... Full Bio

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