Free-speech groups urge Kansas court to set boundaries for college punitive authority over students' off-campus social media speech

June 9, 2015
Contact: Frank LoMonte, Executive Director or 202-872-1704

College students should be protectedagainst disciplinary sanctions for purely off-campus behavior on social media,free-speech groups told the Kansas Court of Appeals in a case involving acollege student expelled for crude insults posted to a personal Twitter account.

In the case of Yeasin v. University of Kansas, the university expelled petroleumengineering student Navid Yeasin on the grounds of violating a university orderagainst contacting his former girlfriend, who had a restraining order againsthim because of past dating violence. The university found that Yeasin violatedthe no-contact order when he posted insulting, profane remarks venting abouthis “crazy ass ex” on Twitter, even though the account was non-public and hisex-girlfriend was blocked from directly viewing it. None of the posts indicatedthat Yeasin contemplated violence.

Attorneys for the university arguethat the speech was punishable because it constituted a “true threat” andbecause the university has a duty to prevent gender-based harassment to complywith the federal Title IX anti-discrimination law. But in September 2014, aKansas district court judge disagreed and found that the university had overreachedbecause it punished Yeasin under disciplinary rules that apply only toon-campus behavior. The university is appealing to the Kansas Court of Appeals.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday, the Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rightsin Education argue that college disciplinary authorities cannot disregard FirstAmendment boundaries by arguing that violating the Constitution is necessary tokeep the university in compliance with Title IX. The brief also argues that theuniversity’s position – that name-calling on social media can be a “truethreat” – is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s narrow understanding ofthreat speech and would risk criminalizing everyday social disagreements.

“While Mr. Yeasin is far from a‘model citizen’ and deserves to be amply punished for genuinely violent orthreatening behavior, defense of the First Amendment often requires defendingthe speech of distasteful speakers with whom we’d prefer not to associate, suchas the Westboro Baptist Church’s anti-gay protestors. Just as the Supreme Courttold us that the government may not punish the speech of anti-gay religiousdemonstrators to silence their message, there are boundaries that publicuniversities cannot not cross if students are to be safe from disciplinaryoverreactions,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the StudentPress Law Center.

“This case provides an opportunityfor the Kansas courts to recognize some rational stopping point where collegepunitive authority cannot follow students into their off-campus lives. WhileMr. Yeasin’s speech addresses matters of purely private concern, a ruling thatgives universities punitive authority over off-campus social media speechequivalent to their on-campus regulatory authority would be extraordinarilydangerous for whistleblowers and journalists,” LoMonte said. “Social mediaincreasingly is where news coverage is being delivered, and because colleges attimes aggressively censor speech in the on-campus media outlets they subsidize,there must be some uncensored platform that is beyond the shadow of universitypunitive authority.”

Since1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high schooland college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in theFirst Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering importantissues free from censorship. The Center conducts workshops on media-lawdevelopments across the country and provides free legal research and educationalmaterials for student journalists and their teachers on its website