Free Speech Victory in Kansas As Judge Reinstates Nursing Student

By January 10, 2011

The Kansas City Star reported last week that U.S. District Judge Eric F. Melgren ordered Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Kansas to reinstate a nursing student who had sued JCCC over her expulsion for posting a photo of herself with an anonymous woman’s placenta on Facebook. JCCC also had expelled three other students for doing the same. The judge ruled that JCCC got rid of the student without affording her a fair hearing.

That’s not all. JCCC apparently violated both the free speech and due process rights of student Doyle Byrnes and her three classmates. The Star reports these findings by Judge Melgren:

  • Photos are taken to be viewed, and if the students were given permission to photograph the placenta, it became irrelevant what they did with the pictures.
  • There was no violation of any patient’s privacy because there was nothing in the photos to identify whose placenta it was.
  • Byrnes was not allowed a fair hearing on her dismissal.

According to Star journalist Matt Campbell, Judge Melgren added: "I don’t know that what they [the students] did was disruptive. I think the college’s reaction was disruptive."

JCCC claims that the four students were "dismissed" but not "expelled," since they had the opportunity to reapply for admission. But that sure looks like expulsion to me.

At any rate, FIRE’s free online Guide to Due Process and Fair Procedure on Campus makes clear that a college cannot simply get rid of a student without at least some form of notice and a hearing. In fact, the law is so clearly established on this point that former Valdosta State University President Ronald Zaccari lost his qualified immunity (which generally protects government officials from personal liability when they act in their official roles) by expelling a student without providing notice or a hearing.

Zaccari still faces having to pay damages. JCCC officials who violated the students’ rights could face damages as well if they were sued in their personal capacities.

Campbell reports that JCCC plans to "reach out" to all four students. That’s a good idea, since more lawsuits from the other students could be coming. I hope JCCC has learned an important lesson about respecting students’ rights.