SPLC responds to ruling in University of Minnesota “facebook discipline” case

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEContact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”), a nonprofitlegal-assistance organization that supports student journalists nationwide,released the following statement Wednesday in response to the Minnesota SupremeCourt’s June 20 ruling in Tatro v.University of Minnesota.

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the StudentPress Law Center, said:

“The University of Minnesota made an audacious grab forunlimited authority over its students’ off-campus speech, and fortunately forall students, the Supreme Court slammed the door in its face. The mostimportant aspect of this ruling was the categorical rejection of theuniversity’s argument that a college student’s off-campus speech is entitled tono greater First Amendment protection than a high school student’s speech on aclass assignment. That argument was plainly frivolous, and it received thedismissive response it deserved.

Last July’s Court of Appeals ruling, which said Amanda’sspeech was unprotected by the First Amendment because it ‘disrupted’ the campusby causing donors to waver in supporting the university, was an ill-considered decisionthat put the safety of all bloggers, commentators and whistleblowers in peril.It is a huge relief that the Supreme Court has overturned that finding of‘disruption’ so that journalists can be confident that merely exposing schoolwrongdoing in a way that undermines public support for the school remains FirstAmendment-protected speech.

Although the court seems to have confined colleges’discretion to the rare occasion when speech violates established standards of aprofessional program, the fact that we are talking at all about collegesregulating students’ Facebook posts shows how badly the First Amendment hasbeen eroded. All of us will have to be vigilant that colleges understand thisas a narrow, limited decision and not an invitation to impose subjective ‘goodbehavior’ standards over everything students say or do in their off-campuslives.”

By way of background, Amanda Tatro was disciplined by theUniversity of Minnesota for joking remarks on her personal Facebook page –created off-campus using a home computer – that the university regarded as reflectingunfitness for her chosen profession, mortuary science. The Minnesota SupremeCourt ruled 5-0 Wednesday that, while the university’s punishment did notviolate Tatro’s First Amendment rights, a public college’s authority todiscipline students for the content of their speech is limited to speech thatviolates “established professional conduct standards.”

The SPLC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support ofTatro, arguing that the Minnesota Court of Appeals’ July 2011 ruling gavecolleges too much latitude to punish speech by applying the Supreme Court’s Tinker standard, a legal standard thatwas created in the context of on-campus speech before a captive listeningaudience in K-12 schools. The Supreme Court declined to follow the Court ofAppeals in applying Tinker, andinstead decided the case on the narrower grounds of “professional conductstandards.”