Amanda Tatro's Facebook posts aren't protected speech, Minnesota Supreme Court rules

Categories: Law
amanda tatro.jpg
Students who agree to narrowly tailored speech-restricting academic program rules are not free to say whatever they want on Facebook, the court ruled.
The University of Minnesota acted legally when it gave mortuary student Amanda Tatro an "F" grade after she published a string of controversial Facebook posts in late 2009.

In an opinion, Justice Helen Meyer wrote that "the university may regulate student speech on Facebook that violates established professional conduct strategies." In disciplining Tatro, the school found she violated the Mortuary Science Student Code of Professional Conduct by posting status updates where she endearingly referred to the cadaver she was working with as "Bernie" and issued tongue-in-cheek threats to stab her ex-boyfriend with a sharp embalming tool.

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Tatro's case in February, she said she may end up appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. We'll see if she follows through with an appeal or just lets the matter die.

The University's discipline of Tatro focused on the following four Facebook posts:
Trocar.jpg
Tatro's trocar posts led multiple faculty members to think they were being threatened.

Amanda Beth Tatro Gets to play, I mean dissect, Bernie today. Let's see if I can have a lab void of reprimanding and having my scalpel taken away. Perhaps if I just hide it in my sleeve... [November 12, 2009]

Amanda Beth Tatro Is looking forward to Monday's embalming therapy as well as a rumored opportunity to aspirate. Give me room, lots of aggression to be taken out with a trocar. [December 6, 2009]

Amanda Beth Tatro Who knew embalming lab was so cathartic! I still want to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar though. Hmm..perhaps I will spend the evening updating my "Death List #5" and making friends with the crematory guy. I do know the code... [December 7, 2009]

Amanda Beth Tatro Realized with great sadness that my best friend, Bernie, will no longer be with me as of Friday next week. I wish to accompany him to the retort. Now where will I go or who will I hang with when I need to gather my sanity? Bye, bye Bernie. Lock of hair in my pocket. [December 7, 2009]
A fellow student saw the posts and told Tatro's professor. She was suspended from school before being quickly reinstated, but eventually got an "F" in the class as punishment for her Facebook posts. Tatro challenged the "F," arguing that her spurned-lover status updates are protected by the First Amendment.

Her damages in the case are minimal: She stayed in school and graduated last year. Jordan Kushner, her attorney, has maintained all along the ongoing litigation is about principle.

During oral arguments, Kushner made the case that the school's actions were baseless and violated Tatro's constitutional rights. The University's General Counsel Mark Rotenberg rebutted that Tatro failed to abide by the professional standards set for the students in the program. Today's ruling indicates Rotenberg's argument won the day.

Says Meyer's opinion: "The University of Minnesota did not violate the free speech rights of [Tatro] by imposing disciplinary sanctions for Facebook posts that violated academic program rules where the academic program rules were narrowly tailored and directly related to established professional conduct standards."

Previous coverage:
-- Amanda Tatro, still upset about Facebook-post punishment, may appeal to U.S. Supreme Court
-- Amanda Tatro and Facebook threats: U of M wins against former student
-- Facebook post prompts U to ban mortuary student from campus

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