After Expulsion for Online Speech, Nursing Student’s Lawsuit Proceeds

March 28, 2013

A former nursing student at Minnesota’s Central Lakes College is proceeding with his lawsuit against institution officials after being expelled for online speech. 

Craig Keefe was expelled last December on the basis of his Facebook posts and filed a federal lawsuit alleging violations of his First Amendment and due process rights this past February. As the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) reports, the most recent development in the case is that the individually named defendants have asked the federal district court to dismiss some of Keefe’s claims against them.

SPLC reporter Sara Tirrito provides the background of the case, in which Keefe was called into a meeting with two university administrators prior to his expulsion and told that some of his private Facebook posts were "disturbing." According to his lawsuit, these included a post "including the phrase ‘stupid bitch’ and a comment about there not being enough whiskey for anger management." Keefe alleges that despite the protected status of this expression, he was expelled from the nursing program for, as the school put it, "behavior unbecoming of the nursing profession and transgression of professional boundaries." 

Readers may find that this case is reminiscent in some ways of the Amanda Tatro case at the University of Minnesota. In that case, Tatro, a mortuary sciences student, was punished for off-campus Facebook posts that her school labeled as threatening despite their clearly protected and non-threatening nature. (Ultimately, the Minnesota Supreme Court found for the university in a disappointing ruling.) Indeed, the similarities are present, from the fact that both cases center on online student expression on Facebook to the fact that both arose in the state of Minnesota.  Indeed, the same attorney that represented Tatro, Jordan Kushner, is representing Keefe.  

However, as FIRE’s Will Creeley points out in the SPLC article, there are some important legal differences:

In Tatro, the Minnesota Supreme Court found that the school could "impose disciplinary sanctions for Facebook posts that violated academic program rules where the academic program rules were narrowly tailored and directly related to established professional conduct standards." 

Creeley said in the Keefe case, there have been discrepancies over which Facebook posts are at issue and the reasons for Keefe’s expulsion were "very broad."

"Here, the rules don’t seem to be narrowly tailored at all," Creeley said. "In fact it’s one of the problems with the case is it’s extremely difficult to figure out precisely what the justification for expelling the student was. … In Tatro, the speech at issue related directly to the professional program in which she was enrolled. Here we have speech that does not seem…to have anything to do with the nursing program." 

You can read more from Will over at the SPLC’s site—including why the Keefe case reminds him of Hayden Barnes’ ordeal at Valdosta State University, one of FIRE’s most memorable cases. 

Of course, we will be following Keefe’s lawsuit with great interest and will report on developments in the case here on The Torch.