Student expelled for MySpace blog postings

By March 30, 2009

Who crossed the line?  Did the University of Louisville cross the line in March when it expelled a nursing student, Nina Yoder, for her MySpace postings?  Or did Yoder cross the line when she blogged about gun control, abortion, politics, religion and being a nurse?

At the end of the day, a court will decide.  Yoder filed a lawsuit in March against the University of Louisville, alleging that her civil rights were violated.  According to court documents, Yoder is seeking that she be reinstated as a student at the School of Nursing; receive full credit for all school work missed; her disciplinary and academic record be cleared; that the university and its employees not disclose information regarding this situation in the future.  Yoder is requesting punitive damages and compensation.
In a statement, John Drees, spokesman for the university, said, "Student disciplinary and academic matters are, by law and by university policy, confidential.  The university takes seriously academic and disciplinary matters.  There are several processes available for students who seek review of any decisions affecting their academic status."

Drees added that the School of Nursing Honor Code Pledge is available online at http://louisville.edu/nursing/current-students/honor-code.html for anyone to examine.

At least one legal expert thinks she may have a case.  "In general, university students retain free speech rights, and that includes the right to blog or make other statements online," said Russell L. Weaver, professor of law and distinguished university scholar at the U of L Brandeis School of Law.

"Of course, the university might have the right to intervene if the student were making physical threats against other students, faculty or staff," Weaver said.  "Aside from that, it would be highly impermissible for the university to discipline or expel a student simply [because] they found her statements to be disagreeable or offensive."

At issue are postings such as this which said, "At last my girl [referring to the patient she was working with] gave one big push, and immediately out came a wrinkly bluish creature, all Picasso-like and weird, ugly as hell. . . 15 minutes later it turned into a cute pink itty bitty little baby girl.  Mom was forgotten, the whole squacking [sic] family surrounded the new Creep; she was crowned with a pink cap, wrapped into a blanket and finally shut up with a teat."

When contacted about the ongoing situation, Yoder said she did not expect this outcome."It appears I was naïve at how human interactions work.  My opuses were intended to be shared amongst my friends, although they were open to outsiders to join the discussion.  My expectations were that if someone disagreed with me, they would initiate an intelligent conversation, during which we would learn from each other and correct each other’s misconceptions," said Yoder by email.

"I was logically assuming that there would be no such drastic outbursts, nor that there would be anyone intending to ruin my educational opportunities over a disagreement.  Naturally, now it is impossible to keep any of my thoughts to myself, even if I wanted to," Yoder said.

According to a letter Yoder received from Dean, Marchia J Hern, she was expelled because of her Internet postings, regarding patient activities and because she identified herself as a U of L nursing student; which violated the honor code she pledged to uphold.  "Upon evaluation of your demonstrated fitness to continue in the program in accordance with promulgated professional standards established by the School of Nursing, you are receiving an academic dismissal from the School of Nursing," the letter stated.  Yoder was also informed she would have the opportunity to ask for a review.

But, in a letter dated March 9, from Kiehl, Yoder’s petition for readmission to the University of Louisville was denied. 

According to school policies, students who are dismissed by one enrollment unit are eligible for admission to another unit, but that Yoder could not enroll in any courses she was dismissed from.

Yoder’s lawsuit also stated that before receiving the official letter expelling her, during a meeting on Feb. 27, she was informed Kiehl had "pictures" and that "students voiced concerns that lead us [the university] to believe you have a gun."  Two officers then performed a pat-down search and determined she did not have a gun in her possession.  Although Yoder said she has never brought any firearm onto university campus, she was then banned from school.

A former classmate of Yoder’s disagrees with those concerns.

Virginia Weatherman, a senior nursing student, said she was outraged at the "close-mindedness" of her program and institution, and that she did not feel safer with Yoder out of the school.

"I never once heard Nina say she was going to bring a gun to school or express a desire to harm anyone.  She only supported the constitutional right to own a gun.  So no, now I feel even more UNSAFE, because I worry about voicing concern or unrest, why not kick me out too?" Weatherman said.

Kiehl, who was named in the suit, was not available to comment.

Adam Kissel of the Foundation For Individuals Rights in Education, said the situation of universities expelling students for voicing their opinions is part of a disturbing trend.
"Universities are trying to control what students say off campus and online," said Kissel.  "This violated her right to due process, even if they are right about the content of the blogs."

Kissel also questioned the school’s statement that Yoder violated the nursing code.
"You don’t have a nursing license yet as a student, so are you automatically a nurse on your first day of school?" asked Kissel.  "Wouldn’t this be an educational moment, not a chance for the school to expel you?"

This case has gained national attention as well.  In a news article written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sara Lipka stated, "Courts generally uphold universities disciplinary sanctions as long as their processes involve ‘some kind of notice’ and ‘some kind of hearing’ – standards from a Supreme Court ruling in 1975 involving high-school students in Ohio."

Yoder and her attorney, Dan Canon of Louisville, are scheduled to go before a federal judge on April 10.  According to Canon, they are hoping the judge will decide to allow Yoder to return to classes and thus graduate with her nursing degree in August.

But Kissel said that would be a challenge: "That is a long time to wait, there is no way she can make up the classes she has missed."

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Schools: University of Louisville