The University of Central Florida’s decision to suspend a student over a social media post — and to later reverse the punishment — has raised questions about the university’s approach to the First Amendment and social media.
Six months ago, Nick Lutz, a UCF student, received an apology letter from his ex-girlfriend in response to their recent breakup. Lutz posted the letter on Twitter, grading it as though it were an assignment. He took off points for grammatical mistakes, spelling errors and missing details, and gave the letter an overall D minus grade. The post was retweeted 121,000 times.
Earlier this month, UCF suspended him for posting the letter. Then, on Wednesday, the suspension was reversed. While the university ultimately revoked the sanctions, Lutz’s attorney, Jacob Stuart, said the case could set a troubling precedent.
“How do we regulate within a public university who decides what is morally right?” Stuart asked. “I don’t think the state has any purpose in doing that.”
After seeing the tweet, Lutz’s ex-girlfriend, who is not a UCF student, went to the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office with a cyberbullying claim. While prosecutors did not pursue the case, Lutz received a letter from the university on July 6 saying he may have violated local, state, and/or federal law with his post, according to Stuart.
However, the school did not provide evidence or specification on how Lutz’s tweet violated the law, Stuart said. Moreover, when the attorney appealed the school’s decision, Lutz received a response Tuesday stating that he violated school conduct codes constituting disruption and cyberbullying — different grounds for his punishments from what was first alleged.
Lutz was facing five sanctions administered from the UCF Office of Student Conduct: suspension from the upcoming summer and fall semesters; requirements to give a presentation and write a paper reflecting on this experience and its impact on others; mandatory mentorship with a university staff or faculty member; and disciplinary probation
That the university would scan their students’ social media accounts and punish them for their posts concerned Stuart. He believes Lutz’s post did not provide any “identifying markers” of his ex-girlfriend to qualify as cyberbullying and certainly did not violate any law.
The larger issue at hand, Stuart said he believes, is a violation of Lutz’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The school’s second letter to Lutz alleging violations of conduct codes for disruption and cyberbullying was a “moral decision” from the administrators, Stuart said, which sets a slippery precedent for school officials in the future.
Given UCF’s standing as the largest public university in the country with over 60,000 students, Stuart said the administration’s punishment of Lutz could have set a dangerous standard for other public schools to “troll” their students online.
On Wednesday, the university’s dean of students, Adrienne Otto Frame, sent Lutz a letter dropping the sanctions, stating that the original charges of disruptive behavior and bullying were “improvidently levied.” The ex-girlfriend — who the letter identified as a high student who plans on attending UCF — experienced “substantial emotional distress,” Frame wrote, but officials were unable to determine if that distress was due to Lutz’s original posting or the unexpected attention the tweet received.
“I can only say that their actions lead me to believe that they have some type of internal mechanism where they’re deciding internally what a student can or cannot say on social media platforms,” Stuart said. “I can’t speak to directly why they’re doing this, but it’s certainly alarming.”