Hearing Friday for expelled U Of L nursing student

By April 9, 2009

Friday, a federal judge will hold a hearing in the case of Nina Yoder, a University of Louisville nursing student who was expelled over posts on her MySpace page. Yoder is suing the university, claiming the action violated her First Amendment rights

Between January 2008 and February 2009, University of Louisville Nursing Student Nina Yoder wrote dozens of posts on her MySpace blog.

"Let’s say I was being unorthodox and expressing my opinions," she says.

…Opinions on topics like abortion, gun ownership and patients she’d treated as part of her training. It was the last topic that led to Yoder’s expulsion.

"They put in front of me printouts of my blogs and said due to the nature of my blogs I’m being dismissed from school," says Yoder.

U of L says it can’t publicly discuss student expulsion cases, but the school sent Yoder a letter saying her posts about unnamed patients were the reason for her dismissal because they violated the department’s honor code.

"We don’t think that there’s anything in the school’s honor code that would constitute a waiver of her first amendment rights," says Yoder’s attorney Daniel Canon. "Certainly not. Nor her right to due process. Nor do I think she could waive that or be compelled to wave that."

Canon says public institutions can’t restrict speech. But Yoder did sign an honor code promising to adhere to, quote, the highest standards of honesty, integrity, accountability, confidentiality, and professionalism.

Canon says that’s too vague, and regardless of the code any attempts to limit student speech are unconstitutional.

"Students blog about being in school," he says. "Professionals blog about being professionals. Lawyers blog about being lawyers. Doctors blog about being doctors. This is something that happens, it’s going to continue to happen. Students blog about being students."

"We are each entitled to our opinions. It’s how we express this opinion and where we express it and who we might be hurting by it that needs to be taken into account," says Cleveland State University School of Nursing Director Dr. Vida Lock.

"It’s one thing to discuss patients among nursing students, but why she would be posting something like this on a public forum, I think, is unprofessional," she says.

Lock says nursing students are on their way to becoming nurses, and are therefore taught and expected to follow the standards of professional nurses.

While she hasn’t had any cases of students blogging about patients, Lock says it’s possible for the posts to violate professional codes of ethics for nurses. But she couldn’t say if that would warrant immediate expulsion.

"If a student made derogatory comments about a patient – that a patient was student stupid or ugly or something like that, I would certainly have a talking to with that student," she says.

Adam Kissel with the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education says it’s unfair to hold students who might, as other U of L nursing students have done, post unflattering or embarrassing photos of themselves on a blog, to strict professional standards for speech or behavior, because they aren’t yet professionals.

"Same thing with teaching or social work," says Kissel. "If you’re an up and coming social worker or an up and coming teacher, you’re going to make some mistakes. And the ethics code might be there, but until you actually become a full practicing social worker, there’s got to be some leeway for you to make those mistakes and recover from them."

Kissel says if student speech is going to be limited to meet professional standards, there should be a hearing process for those who violate the code.

"If all they have in their nursing standard of ethics is just a four paragraph statement saying you have preserve ethical standards and nothing else, then that’s way too vague for something you can use against someone for their otherwise protected speech," he says.

Yoder did petition her case, but was not allowed on campus for a hearing. The petition was denied. Daniel Canon, her attorney, says school officials should have talked to Yoder about her alleged violation before expelling her. He says because the school did not give Yoder a chance to be heard, that equates to a denial of Yoder’s constitutional right to due process, in addition to an abrogation of free speech.

Canon and Adam Kissel say they don’t know of any similar lawsuits involving university students’ speech specifically on blogs. But in similar cases, judges have tended to rule in favor of school disciplinary actions, unless the student could prove due process was denied.

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Schools: University of Louisville