Appeals court: KU student expelled for crude off-campus tweets can return to school

(Story updated at 6 pm, 9/25, with a quote from Navid Yeasin’s attorney.)

KANSAS — The University of Kansas overreached when it expelled a student who posted profane, insulting tweets about his ex-girlfriend while under a no-contact order, the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

The student, Navid Yeasin, tweeted at an off-campus location, so the university had no authority to punish him for the remarks, the court ruled. “The Student Code, the rules by which the University can impose discipline upon its students, deals only with conduct on campus or at University sponsored or supervised events,” said the ruling, which affirmed a September 2014 ruling by a district court and lifted a stay order that had barred Yeasin from the university.

Yeasin tweeted several profane insults about his former girlfriend — a fellow student who had a restraining order against him — referring to her as a “psycho” and “crazy-ass ex.” The university expelled him on the grounds that he violated the no-contact order and that his speech constituted a “true threat.” University officials also cited Title IX, which bans sexual harassment, as grounds for his expulsion. Yeasin contended that the university could not punish him for off-campus speech.

“It’s been two and a half years since he’s been out of school, so he’s looking forward to getting back to school,” said Terence Leibold, Yeasin’s attorney. “We feel pretty vindicated that we took the right position. We’re hoping that KU doesn’t want to appeal this to the Supreme Court, we think that’d be a waste of time. We’re hoping that he gets back to school and gets his life back to normal.”

Sara Trower, KU associate general counsel did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s requests for comment as of Friday afternoon.

The SPLC, along with other free-speech organizations, filed an amicus curiae brief in June in support of Yeasin. Kansas State University also filed an amicus curiae brief, arguing that Title IX compliance obligations extend only to speech on campus and school-sponsored activities.

“While Mr. Yeasin is far from a ‘model citizen’ and deserves to be amply punished for genuinely violent or threatening behavior, defense of the First Amendment often requires defending the speech of distasteful speakers with whom we’d prefer not to associate, such as the Westboro Baptist Church’s anti-gay protesters,” said SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte in the brief. “This case provides an opportunity for the Kansas courts to recognize some rational stopping point where college punitive authority cannot follow students into their off-campus lives.”

In the brief, LoMonte argued that policing students’ off-campus speech and social media activities can bleed into censorship, threatening the rights of student journalists and whistleblowers.

LoMonte said in an interview that while the ruling was a victory for free-speech rights, he would have preferred an opinion that addressed the larger issue of off-campus speech.

“It would have been nice to get a declaration from the court categorically that off-campus speech is entitled to a heightened level of protection,” he said. “My overriding feeling is one of relief that they didn’t use a factually unsympathetic case to make bad law. It is a relief that the lower court was upheld even though it was on the narrowest possible grounds.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at 202-974-6317 or by email.