Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Higher Ed, Facebook and Free Speech

On the surface, the following story from Inside Higher Ed appears to indicate that a student at the University of Minnesota was disciplined for posting tasteless and even offensive jokes on her personal Facebook page.

Court Backs Right of University to Discipline for Facebook Comments:
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld the right of the University of Minnesota to discipline a student in a mortuary sciences program who posted jokes about a cadaver on a Facebook page, Minnesota Public Radio reported. The student argued that the First Amendment protects the posts, but the appeals court found that the university could take action if it could "reasonably conclude" that the Facebook postings would "materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school."
My first impulse was - "this a slippery slope", "If a student can be disciplined for offensive comments, could a student or faculty member be disciplined for posting comments critical of the institution"? But a closer reading of the Minnesota Public Radio story the article links to tells a different story.

Court of Appeals: Facebook posts were grounds for U of M to discipline student

The Inside Higher Ed account omits the fact that the student apparently threatened someone in one of the Facebook posts.
Who knew embalming lab was so cathartic! I still want to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar though.[4] Hmm..perhaps I will spend the evening updating my "Death List #5" and making friends with the crematory guy. I do know the code . . . .
The court makes clear that "the university's substantial interest in protecting the safety of its students and faculty" was an overriding factor in the decision.
[The student]1 also argued that the U of M didn't have authority to discipline her because the activity to which it objected took place off campus. "Whether or not [name removed] intended her posts to be satire or mere venting does not diminish the university's substantial interest in protecting the safety of its students and faculty and addressing potentially threatening conduct," the Court of Appeals said. It added that in these times, schools need to watch for and respond to student behavior that indicates a potential for violence.
I expect better from Inside Higher Ed.
  1. I've removed the students name to protect their privacy.

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