Former Minn. nursing student files appeal after losing Facebook speech case

MINNESOTA — A federal court has dismissed a suit from a former student at Central Lakes College, who sued college administrators for expelling him from a nursing program over remarks on his personal Facebook page.

On Tuesday, the U.S. District Court of Minnesota dismissed the claims the former student, Craig Keefe, made against Larry Lundblad, CLC’s president, and Steven Rosenstone, Minnesota State Colleges’ chancellor and chief executive officer, according to the court order.

The court dismissed remaining claims against Beth Adams, dean of students; Connie Frisch, dean of nursing; and Kelly McCalla, vice president of academic affairs, as well.

Keefe’s attorney, Jordan Kushner, said he has already filed an appeal, adding that he was a “little outraged” by the ruling.

“It was a huge setback to due process and First Amendment rights for students,” he said. “It allows administrators to arbitrarily classify any conduct they don’t like, whether it’s on or off campus, as an academic issue and then proceed to take action against students without any restrictions or constraints under procedural rights.”

On Dec. 7, 2012, Keefe was expelled from CLC’s Associate Degree Nursing Program after school officials claimed a series of Facebook posts violated the college’s student handbook.

In November 2012, two fellow students approached Kim Scott, an instructor in the nursing program, with concerns related to the content of Keefe’s Facebook posts. In the posts, he addressed frustrations with other students in a class using phrases such as “stupid bitch” and “not enough whiskey to control that anger.”

Scott said the posts from Keefe’s personal account were “very derogatory, inappropriate, and unprofessional,” according to the court order. All of the statements provided by both students were also forwarded to Frisch. Keefe was expelled in December 2012 after meeting with Frisch and Adams.

In January 2013, McCalla denied Keefe the ability to appeal the expulsion. Keefe argued the school did not give him the proper due process to defend himself because the matter was misclassified as “academic” rather than disciplinary.

Kathryn Woodruff and Kristyn Anderson, the college’s attorneys, did not respond to telephone calls or an email requesting comment.

The ruling shares some similarities to Tatro v. University of Minnesota, where the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that a college 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.”

Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he was disappointed in the court’s ruling.

“I think the judge blindly dismissed the serious First Amendment concerns raised by the facts in the case,” he said. “I think the distinction between academic disciplinary action and disciplinary action based on non-academic misconduct was too easily waved away by the judge’s order.”

Both Creeley and Kushner said the court’s ruling gives school administrators too much leeway when deciding what actions, on- or off- campus, constitute academic or non-academic disciplinary actions.

“I think that was the crucial threshold determination by the court,” Creeley said, “and I think the court got it wrong.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.