Tatro v. University of Minnesota

816 N.W.2d 509 (Minn. 2012)

Amanda Tatro was a student at the University of Minnesota mortuary science program. During the 2009 fall semester, Tatro made posts on her Facebook account where she made a series of comments about her assigned cadaver that were deemed offensive. One of the posts involved her standing over a body saying, “I think I am going to stab him.” When the faculty discovered the posts, they expelled her from the program. Tatro sued, claiming that her free speech rights were violated since she made the posts outside of school and thus was protected by the First Amendment. The school claimed that the threat of losing funding and the breach of mortuary ethics constituted a sizable disruption to school activities, so they were justified under Tinker to censor her speech. The local district court ruled in favor of the university and it was appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The SPLC disagreed with the lower court’s ruling, arguing it would lead to unnecessary censorship of student speech. If universities can expel students for private Facebook posts that are only intended to be seen by friends and acquaintances, then they can potentially censor political speech or speech critical of government actions. In addition, this standard allows schools to punish students for comments that have nothing to do with school activity. Another problem is that the censorship does not meet the Tinker standard.

The Supreme Court of Minnesota affirmed the lower court’s decision, holding that the university did not violate the First Amendment by imposing sanctions for social networking posts made in violation of academic program rules. The court also ruled that the program’s rules of conduct were narrowly tailored and “directly related to established professional conduct standards.”