Supreme Court declines to hear free speech case

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to hear a case that would have set precedent for student speech freedoms on social media.

The decision leaves standing the October 2016 ruling in the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals against Craig Keefe, who claimed that his expulsion from Central Lakes College violated his First Amendment and due process rights.

In December 2012, Keefe was expelled from Central Lakes College’s nursing program for Facebook posts – one of which described a fellow classmate as a ‘stupid bitch’ – that he made on his public personal account. The college determined that Keefe’s posts violated the student handbook policy regarding professional behavior.

Keefe filed a lawsuit against the dean of the college, Beth Adams, along with other college administrators in February 2013. The U.S. District Court of Minnesota dismissed his case in August 2014, so he appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit.

In the majority opinion ruling against Keefe, Judge James Loken wrote that the college had the legal authority to hold students to the standards of their intended profession and had the power to impose “adverse consequence on the student for exercising his right to speak at the wrong place and time, like the student who receives a failing grade for submitting a paper on the wrong subject.”

Keefe’s petition to the Supreme Court made the argument that the Eighth Circuit ruling unjustly allowed public colleges and universities to hold students to professional standards for speech that has no relation to the professional context in a particular field.

“There is no suggestion that the Petitioner was unprofessional in his coursework or behavior in the clinical setting even if his Facebook etiquette left something to be desired. CLC violated the First Amendment when it expelled him for personal social media postings unconnected to any course requirement under conduct codes based on amorphous professional standards,” the petition read.

Before the Supreme Court considered hearing Keefe’s case, the SPLC and four other free speech organization filed an amicus brief urging the Court to hear the case. SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte spoke to the necessity of reversing of the Eighth Circuit decision, saying it allowed colleges and universities the ability to privatize the First Amendment.

“This case presents our best chance since the advent of social media to, finally, get clarity from the Supreme Court that off-campus speech is entitled to greater protection than speech inside of the classroom during school,” LoMonte said. “This ruling was outrageous and extreme in two respects – first, that it allows for expulsion from college without any of the formalities accompanying expulsion if the college just chooses to call the expulsion ‘academic’ rather than ‘disciplinary,’ and second, that a college can punish ‘unprofessional’ speech even without showing that it disrupted the operations of the college one bit. Even a middle-school student is entitled to First Amendment protection unless her speech substantially disrupts school operations, and the Eighth Circuit’s misguided decision has left college students with lesser free-speech protections than 12-year-olds. It’s imperative that the justices overturn this incredibly dangerous precedent and restore some meaningful boundaries to colleges’ disciplinary authority.”

To date, there has been no definitive ruling clearly establishing the boundaries of public colleges’ authority over off-campus speech and social media.

A Kansas court in 2016 punted a similar social media expulsion legal battle when U.S. District Judge Julie A. Robinson threw out constitutional claims brought by a University of Kansas student, Navid Yeasin, who was expelled in November 2013 after posting profane remarks about an unnamed ex-girlfriend on his personal Twitter account.

The Keefe ruling is of special concern for student journalists. Loken wrote in his majority opinion that the concept of the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier standard – that a school can regulate speech if it breaches the school’s instructional objectives – “has broader relevance to student speech” even beyond the Hazelwood context of a high-school newsroom.

If high schools and colleges begin taking Loken’s interpretation of a “broad” relevance to student speech, that opens the door to issues of censorship when journalists cover issues that paint their schools in a negative light.

Since the Eighth Circuit ruling now stands as the final word in Keefe’s case, the wait begins for another chance to get a definitive ruling on student off-campus speech and social media usage.