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Former Central Lakes Nursing Student Appeals First Amendment Case

By August 29, 2014

Craig Keefe, a former student at Central Lakes College (CLC) in Minnesota, is appealing a U.S. district court’s dismissal of his claims that the college violated his First Amendment and due process rights when it expelled him in December 2012 for remarks he had made on Facebook.

Keefe, then a nursing student, posted some comments on Facebook that expressed negative feelings towards his classmates and included profanity. All of his comments fell far outside the narrowly defined categories of speech unprotected by the First Amendment, such as “true threats.” Nevertheless, the public institution expelled Keefe “as a consequence of behavior unbecoming of the profession and transgression of professional boundaries.”

Speaking with the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) last year, FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley compared the case to that of Amanda Tatro, a mortuary sciences student whom the University of Minnesota punished for Facebook posts in 2010. Will articulated a key distinction that FIRE believes the court ignored, to the detriment of student speech rights:

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.”

This week, Will emphasized this point again, telling the SPLC:

I think the judge blindly dismissed the serious First Amendment concerns raised by the facts in the case. … [T]he distinction between academic disciplinary action and disciplinary action based on non-academic misconduct was too easily waved away by the judge’s order.

For more on the case and the result so far, read the full court order (PDF) and check out FIRE’s past coverage.

Schools: University of Minnesota – Twin Cities