University’s disciplinary sanctions for mortuary sciences student’s Facebook posts did not violate free speech protections

January 30, 2013

Posting on FacebookEditor’s note: Over the next few weeks we will be featuring posts from our Westlaw Editorial team. This is the team that creates editorial enhancements for caselaw, including headnotes and Key Numbers. Enjoy the series: Westlaw Editorial’s Top Cases of 2012.

It is very important to think before you post. A mortuary sciences student at the University of Minnesota posted to Facebook several times about her dissection of a human cadaver during a laboratory class.

In her posts, the student gave the cadaver a name and stated that she got “to play” with the cadaver. The student also stated in her posts that she wanted to stab “a certain someone in the throat with a trocar.” The student later posted that the cadaver would no longer be with her and that the student had a lock of hair in her pocket.

The University was not at all pleased upon learning of the student’s posts, and it started an investigation. The University determined that the student violated academic program rules and imposed disciplinary sanctions against her, including changing her grade in the course to an F. The Provost concluded that the student’s Facebook posts were disrespectful and unprofessional. The University’s decision was affirmed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

On further review, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the sanctions, in Tatro v. University of Minnesota. Noting that the case was a matter of first impression, the Supreme Court held that a university does not violate the free speech rights of a student enrolled in a professional program when the university imposes sanctions for Facebook posts that violate academic program rules that are narrowly tailored and directly related to established professional conduct standards.

Tatro headnote

The Supreme Court reasoned that tying the legal rule to established professional conduct standards limits a university’s restrictions on Facebook use to students in professional programs governed by such standards, and prevents a university from impermissibly reaching into a student’s personal life outside of and unrelated to the program.

Headnotes 5, 8, 9, and 10 on Westlaw reflect how the court’s holding and reasoning fit into the Key Number System, which organizes the law into topics and subtopics, with pinpoint precision (which is a lot better than looking for a needle in a haystack).

For example, a researcher would find this case (and others) by using the search term 92K2153 to retrieve headnotes from the topic Constitutional Law, and the subtopic Freedom of Speech, Expression, and Press–Telecommunications and Computers–Internet–Educational Institutions.

A search for 81K9.30(6) would fetch cases from the topic Colleges and Universities, and the subtopic Students–Regulation of Conduct in General–Expulsion, Suspension, or Other Discipline–Grounds.