University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center: Student Investigated and Punished for Social Media Posts

Category: Cases, Free Speech, Litigation
Schools: University of Tennessee – Knoxville

Diei v. UTHSC – Complaint

Kimberly Diei is a second-year doctoral student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Pharmacy. She has twice been investigated by her program’s Professional Conduct Committee because of allegations that her personal social media activity was too “crude,” “vulgar,” and “sexual.” Diei enjoys commenting on topics of interest to her and other young, black social media users, occasionally using profanity and freely expressing her views about sexuality. But what a young woman says about sex on social media has nothing to do with her ability to be a pharmacist.

Although Diei does not identify herself as a student at the College of Pharmacy or indicate any association with the university in any of her posts, the Committee alleged that Diei’s posts were unprofessional and violated the College’s “Standards for Student Professionalism Conduct.” The professionalism standards were never provided to Diei, nor are they available online. After its second investigation, the Committee voted to expel Diei from the College of Pharmacy. Although the expulsion was overturned after FIRE intervened, the Committee’s actions have forced Diei to self-censor her social media content every single day out of fear she will be disciplined again.

On February 3, 2021, Diei — represented by FIRE — sued University officials challenging the College of Pharmacy’s vague professionalism policies as well as the university’s disciplinary actions against her for her constitutionally-protected expression. Diei’s lawsuit will remind the University of Tennessee of these important principles and ensure that Diei and her classmates no longer face this unconstitutional threat that their expression on personal social media will endanger their education.