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

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

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

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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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37 comments
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  • I hope she wins

    Of course her posts were over the top, but schools, colleges, et al have to learn they have severe limits on how they control the thoughts and free speech of their students off campus.

    Besides, if I understand correctly, she is *paying* them to teach her. That makes them *her* employees...
    wolf_z
    • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

      @wolf_z By that definition, i would hope the IRS doesn,t pick up on that!
      Dameadows
      • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

        @Dameadows why not. Then student loans would then be a much larger deduction.
        fierogt
    • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

      @wolf_z
      Just to remind you, freedom of speech ONLY applies to the government. The US Constitution doesn't say that no one can abridge your freedom of speech it only says that the government can't abridge it.

      Once you get past the government, there's all sorts of restrictions on speech that are 100% legal within the bounds of the US Constitution. Such as, you can't swear at your boss and not expect to get fired, you can't insult the company you work for in public without repurcussions, etc. A school can do whatever it wants to a student if they violate the bounds of good taste, morality, stupidity etc. in a public forum because it's not working under the auspices of government.
      BrewmanNH
      • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

        @BrewmanNH
        Whether they operate under the auspices of the government depends. If it is a state sponsered school, then they operate under the total control of the governmet. Just one more point. There is a world of difference between studying at a school and working at a job. May be a bad analogy???
        eargasm
      • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

        @BrewmanNH Not exactly. It exists absolutely when it comes to the
        government (with certain reasonable constraints) but it does apply
        to schools when they choose to interact with the public in various ways.

        Schools operate under certain rules.
        1) To be certified such that their students may receive grants & loans.
        2) For tax reasons schools submit to certain rules.
        3) To receive funds and participate in various government sponsored events and the like they, you guess it, submit to certain rules.

        So while a school may decide that do not wish to abide by certain
        rules, there is a price for doing so.
        richard233
      • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

        @BrewmanNH

        Um... University of Minnesota is a _public_ (aka Government Run) university. Public universities are run by the state government and their rules are considered state law. (And usually are determined by the state politicians.)

        So, tell me again how is this not a case of the Government violating her free speech rights?
        eak2000
      • Public universities

        @eak2000
        are not run by the state government. The employess are paid for by the school, not the state, nor are they considered state workers.

        Public universities are funded with government money, but only if the university follows guidelines set by the government, and agree to rules and regulations set forth by the government.

        And free speech has it's limits, otherwise the government couldn't arrest someone for threatening to kill the president of the US, as they would be "violating that person's freedom of speech", right?
        William Farrel
      • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

        @BrewmanNH - A state supported university can be considered to be part of "The State" and subject to Constitutional law.
        cdhanks
      • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

        @BrewmanNH The 1st Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

        Sorry, it only says the GOVERNMENT shall not interfere; it does NOT address private issues. Yes, this one does indeed need to go to court. I have read AT THE PUBLIC LIBRARY things much more"dangerous" and "Threatening".

        Go ahead and call your boss a jerk - yes, you might get fired, but that is a one-on-one social situation. You DO have the right to do it.
        TampaBri
      • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

        @William Farrel "Public universities are not run by the state government. The employees are paid for by the school, not the state, nor are they considered state workers."

        That is state-by-state. In Hawaii, for instance, they are state workers.

        (Hope this shows up near the right place!)
        levinson
    • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

      @wolf_z YOu are probably one of those Bozos that walk up to cops and say things like, "I pay your salary through my taxes, so you work for *me*". Truth is, that is NOT the case at all. The cop works for the City and you have to contribute to the cost of the protection they provide as a member of society. They DO NOT work for you, they work for the good of the city as a whole. By the same token, paying your tuition does NOT mean professors and admisitration staff works for you, precious.
      JoeFoerster
      • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

        @JoeFoerster 1st common sense statement thought so far. There are some very common sense rules about so cal free speech such as don't yell fire in a crowed building. She sounds like one very sick girl.
        gil_seiler
    • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

      @wolf_z <br>Dude, she exercised her Freedom of Speech. The government didn't step in and squash her. The University found the comments inappropriate for a med student though, and took disciplinary action. Freedom of Speech doesn't mean Freedom from Consequences. Even if it were a state sponsored school, freedom of speech just means you can express yourself and not get thrown in jail, tortured, or executed for it. She got none of those things so I'd say she's good.
      admiraljkb
      • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

        @admiraljkb The Cold Ware era comic Yakov Smirnoff used to joke:
        Like America, in the Soviet Union we have Freedom of Speech.
        In America, you have Freedom *After* Speech.
        It's a nice difference!
        Matt Heffron
      • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

        @admiraljkb - and who are they to judge the appropriateness of the statements? Exactly WHAT does her statements have to do with her academic performance? THAT is what the university is being paid for; to teach her the coursework for which she enrolled. If she knows her stuff, she should get a grade appropriate to her performance, and her opinions outside of class should not enter into it.

        I can see in the future a physics student going from an A to an F because he dared to voice his opinion that Obama isn't a natural born citizen or that Gingrich is a serial adulterer, or "Down with Big Brother", on his twitter feed.

        She's being punished for thoughtcrime by way of her grades.
        hiraghm@...
  • I hope she loses...

    For me, it isn't so much freedom of speech, as opposed to what she alleges to have done. Whether she wrote about it on Facebook or not, keeping the hair, concealing the trocar, making death threats and "taking her agression out on the corpse" are all things that she should not have done.

    The death threats are probably not really University business, as long as she wasn't talking about faculty, but the rest are all ethical breaches, regardless of whether she wrote them up on Facebook or not.

    Abusing the cadaver and removing parts of it (even if only hair) are violations that she performed ON CAMPUS. That she was dumb enough to publicise it afterwards is neither here nor there.
    wright_is
    • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

      @wright_is

      True enough--assuming she actually did what she posted she did...

      If you don't believe anything on Facebook you're right more often than not. :)
      wolf_z
      • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

        @wolf_z
        It's an open confession. Even if she didn't do it, she'd have to get witnesses to prove it.

        I can also assume the contract for the cadaver has some sort of ethics clauses to the Uni so that the family and deceased feel comfortable that the proper respect is paid. Stories like this mean that less people will donate their bodies to science.
        admiraljkb
    • RE: Landmark case? University Vs Former student, cadaver 'Bernie'

      @wright_is I agree, but she may never have really done those things. People who donate their bodies to science should have some assurance that such a gift will be treated with respect. Students who violate such a precious gift should be expelled, at the least. But the next step is to investigate. If she's found with a lock of 'Bernie's' hair, she should get the full punishment the law provides.

      The university may not be able to stop her from saying what she wants on FB, but I bet they can use it as grounds to open said investigation and make her think twice before opening her big yap the next time. People can say anything they want, apparently. Politicians sure can, with acres of money provided by Corporation-Citizens. So why not spoiled-rotten college students.
      JoeFoerster