Two Kansas universities are in legal dispute over supervising student speech off campus

Kansas State University and the University of Kansas are butting heads over how heavily universities can and should supervise student speech off campus under the guidelines set by Title IX to govern sexual harassment.

In an unusual legal alignment, the two sister universities find themselves on opposite sides of a former KU student’s First Amendment case that is working its way through the state appeals courts.

KSU filed an amicus curiae brief on May 22, stating that universities do not have a responsibility to monitor off-campus sexual discrimination, unless the university maintains control over the circumstances in which an event occurs (for instance, at an off-campus university-organized function).

The brief to the Kansas Court of Appeals responds to Navid Yeasin v. The University of Kansas. In June of 2013, Yeasin, a KU student, was charged with criminal battery and criminal restraint against his ex-girlfriend off campus. As a result, the university placed Yeasin under a no-contact order forbidding him from direct or indirect communication with the former girlfriend, then later expelled him for violating that order by posting insults about her on a non-public Twitter account. Yeasin is challenging the expulsion on First Amendment grounds.

KSU wrote that KU overstepped its obligation to discipline perpetrators because “most incidents did not occur on school grounds,” asserting that “Title IX compliance obligations extend only to its campus or to programs and activities the school operates.”

When the fall semester of 2013 began, KU received a complaint from Yeasin’s ex-girlfriend, a student at the university, that said “she experienced the ongoing effects of Yeasin’s domestic abuse and sexual harassment — fear, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and nightmares,” for which she obtained medical treatment in order to continue her studies, according to court documents.

The university issued a no-contact order against Yeasin, but then Yeasin made a number of tweets that appeared to talk about his ex-girlfriend which the university said violated the order, according to Inside Higher Ed and court documents.

Kansas subsequently started a Title IX investigation and expelled Yeasin from the university.

The tweets allegedly were sent from off campus, which brings into light KSU’s question of “whether Title IX requires a school to discipline a student for sexual violence committed off campus and outside the school’s substantial control.”

The Student Press Law Center, alongside the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, filed an amicus curiae brief, which argued that universities have limited authority to regulate off-campus speech by students.

“No matter how honorable the motivation, a public university does not have limitless disciplinary authority to regulate everything a student says and does off campus,” the SPLC and FIRE wrote.

KU filed its own brief replying to KSU and taking a more expansive view of a university’s jurisdiction over off-campus behavior.

“Based on the foregoing, KU had knowledge of Yeasin’s sexual violence and retaliation against Ms. W. when she complained,” the university wrote in response to KSU. “KU acted appropriately and in accordance with its obligations under Title IX when it initiated an investigation, and subsequently expelled him.”

KU wrote that KSU interpreted the directive of Title IX too narrowly, saying that the law is meant to be interpreted broadly.

“KSU’s argument ignores the plain language of Title IX and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of that broad statutory grant of authority given to the DOE,” the KU response said.