Court Affirms Disciplining of Mortuary-Science Student for Threatening Facebook Posts, Relies on Tinker Standard for Censoring Speech in Higher Education
By Matthew Becker – Edited by Abby Lauer
Tatro v. University of Minnesota, 2011 WL 2672220 (Minn. Ct. App. July 11, 2011)
Slip Opinion hosted by the Minnesota State Law Library
The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed a decision of the University of Minnesota Provost’s Appeals Committee, which had penalized mortuary-science student Amanda Tatro for off-campus posts to a social networking website.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals held that the evidence supported the university’s finding that Tatro violated its rules. The court also held that the university properly exercised its authority to address Tatro’s off-campus conduct and did not violate her free speech rights because her actions fell under the wording of the university’s Student Conduct Code, which applies to off-campus conduct that “adversely affects a substantial University interest and . . . indicates that the student may present a danger or threat to the health or safety of the student or others.” In so holding, the court applied the Tinker standard, which allows school officials to limit or discipline student behavior if they reasonably conclude that the behavior will “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” The court stated that the Tinker standard was more appropriate than the alternative “true-threat” standard (which would have required Tatro to have intentionally communicated an actual threat before the university would be allowed to intervene), given that this was not a criminal case and that this standard typically does not apply to public schools taking appropriate disciplinary action.
Eric Goldman provides an overview of the case. The Volokh Conspiracy criticizes the decision for relying on an overly broad rationale that might encroach on students’ free speech rights, while the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) features a similar criticism and a thorough analysis of the decision.