Last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Tatro v. University of Minnesota, a controversial case involving the punishment of a mortuary sciences student for comments posted on Facebook. FIRE and the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) submitted an amici curiae brief on behalf of student Amanda Tatro, arguing that her punishment violated the First Amendment and would establish a dangerous precedent if allowed to stand. Now, as we settle in and wait for the court’s opinion, University of Minnesota student newspaper the Minnesota Daily is weighing in with opinions and more information about the case.
On Monday, Daily reporters Katherine Lymn and Kaitlin Walker provided a richly reported look at the case, giving useful context for Tatro’s speech. On Tatro’s comments, Walker and Lymn write:
She said the posts were just venting or joking, according to a police report. Her mother was ill and her fiancé had just broken up with her without reason. Any perceived threat was an overreaction.
She said "Bernie" was from the 1980’s comedy "Weekend at Bernie’s," "Death List #5" was from "Kill Bill" and the lock of hair comment was a lyric from a Black Crowes song – she didn’t actually take hair from the cadaver.
The police found no crime had been committed after talking to Tatro, and she soon returned to class. But months later, a student conduct committee ruled the posts were threatening and disrespectful – a violation of conduct codes and of rules for the Anatomy Bequest Program, which provides bodies for mortuary science students to learn embalming.
As a result, Tatro’s grade in MORT 3171 dropped from a C+ to an F. She was required to enroll in an ethics course, write a letter to faculty about respect and undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
She was also placed on academic probation for the last year of her undergraduate career.
Highlighting the importance of the case, the article quotes SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte and UM media law professor Jane Kirtley:
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said a strong ruling in Tatro’s favor would "restore a sane and sensible balance between authority and freedom of expression."
But if the University wins, it would expand colleges’ authority "over troublesome speech that annoys them," he said. Colleges are "licking their chops" at the chance for more authority, LoMonte said.
The University says Tatro’s posts were disrupting to the school because offended people may reverse their plans to donate their bodies after they die.
University media law professor Jane Kirtley said when the school is looking to protect its reputation and its ability to raise money and keep donors happy – missions outside the
University’s "educational core" – that reasoning could violate the First Amendment, she said.
Kirtley said she is concerned about the most current student conduct code being vague and overbroad, to the point it could infringe on free speech.
And on Wednesday, the editorial board of the Daily penned an editorial in support of student speech rights. Making excellent points that echo the concerns voiced by FIRE and the SPLC, the Daily writes:
As an institution of higher education, the University should know the harm of so harshly punishing a student for speech. The administration has pointed to the seriousness of her violation in how it affected the feelings of potential cadaver donors. But what will happen the next time a student criticizes an aspect of University research or wasteful administration that, in turn, reduces a donor’s willingness to give money?
The student conduct code gives the University the license to punish students for off-campus expression that "adversely affects a substantial University interest and either constitutes a criminal offense … or indicates that the student may present a danger or threat."
In the Tatro case, it seems highly questionable whether the University stayed within its bounds. Whether in the student code or program contracts, the University should support free speech and avoid broad and unclear wording.
We thank the Daily for its useful attention to this important case.