Administrators ask court to dismiss expelled nursing student's lawsuit

MINNESOTA — Central Lakes College employees named in a former nursing student’s lawsuit have asked the court to dismiss some of the claims in a lawsuit that challenges the student’s expulsion over Facebook posts.

Former Minnesota nursing student Craig Keefe, who was expelled from the school’s Associate Degree Nursing Program in December, has filed a federal lawsuit against employees of the college. His claims include violation of his First Amendment right to free speech and denial of due process.

Prior to his expulsion, Keefe was called to a meeting with Beth Adams, dean of students, and Connie Frisch, dean of nursing, according to Keefe’s complaint. At the meeting, copies of his private Facebook posts were referenced as “disturbing,” but were not shown to him, according to the lawsuit. Specifically, a post “including the phrase ‘stupid bitch’ and a comment about there not being enough whiskey for anger management” were discussed. Keefe told the administrators the whiskey comment was a joke, and that in the weeks prior to the meeting his account had been hacked, the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, the administrators would not tell Keefe how they had gotten copies of his posts, but in affidavits filed by the employees, a fellow faculty member said that students gave her copies of some of Keefe’s posts and Frisch said Keefe’s page was open to the public.

In a letter, Keefe was told that because of his Facebook content, he was expelled for “behavior unbecoming of the nursing profession and transgression of professional boundaries,” the lawsuit states.

Keefe wasn’t given enough information about or time to prepare to defend himself against the school’s allegations against him, the lawsuit alleges. After receiving the letter, he contacted Frisch and Kelly McCalla, vice president of academic affairs, about the denial of his due process rights, and also appealed his expulsion. He was told his appeal was denied, but was not given a written decision, according to the lawsuit.

Jordan Kushner, Keefe’s attorney, said the denial of due process is “a critical angle” in the case.

“The point is, he never got his chance to have his say,” Kushner said.

In addition to the claims of First Amendment violation and denial of due process, Keefe is suing for unreasonable search and seizure, conspiracy and violation of privacy. Adams, Frisch, McCalla, President Larry Lundblad and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Chancellor Steven Rosenstone are all named in the suit.

In a motion filed this week with the U.S. District Court, Lundblad and Rosenstone asked for all the claims against them to be dismissed. The others named have also asked for the conspiracy count to be dismissed, and for dismissal or summary judgment on the counts of unreasonable search and seizure and violation of privacy.

Kathryn Woodruff and Kristyn Anderson, attorneys for the school who are representing the faculty, could not be reached for comment. Kenn Dols, director of marketing and public relations at Central Lakes College, directed questions to Woodruff.

Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that while the case is reminiscent of Tatro v. University of Minnesota, the circumstances are different.

In Tatro, the Minnesota Supreme Court found that the school could “impose 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.”

Creeley said in the Keefe case, there have been discrepancies over which Facebook posts are at issue and the reasons for Keefe’s expulsion were “very broad.”

“Here, the rules don’t seem to be narrowly tailored at all,” Creeley said. “In fact it’s one of the problems with the case is it’s extremely difficult to figure out precisely what the justification for expelling the student was. … In Tatro, the speech at issue related directly to the professional program in which she was enrolled. Here we have speech that does not seem…to have anything to do with the nursing program.”

Creeley said the case also has similarities to Barnes v. Zaccari, in which former Valdosta State University student Hayden Barnes was expelled after protesting a university parking garage project through various outlets, including Facebook. Barnes was not given a hearing before his expulsion and his due process rights ultimately were found to have been violated.

“The lessons that that case should send to university administrators sadly don’t seem to have been heeded in this case,” Creeley said. “The rules should be that student speech online does not lose First Amendment protection and students who are facing serious sanctions like expulsion deserve serious due process protections.”

A hearing in the Keefe case is slated for May 30.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.