Should your university be able to punish you for a Facebook post? Even kick you out?
The U.S. Supreme Court denied requests this week to hear a case that had the potential to set a major legal precedent on students’ rights to free speech off-campus, including on social media.
This lets a lower court’s decision stand — and you may not like it.
The case involves a Minnesota nursing student who was kicked out of his program for comments he made on social media, according to the Student Press Law Center.
CRAIG KEEFE’S STORY
In 2012, Craig Keefe, a one-time student at Central Lakes College’s Brainerd nursing school published Facebook posts complaining about group work partners, alcohol and another student who he suspected had made a complaint against him.
In one of the Facebook posts, according to the amicus brief filed by the First Amendment groups, Keefe called the classmate he suspected of having reported him a “stupid bitch.” Another post contained a joke about whiskey and anger management.
Keefe was just one semester away from graduating from the Brainerd nursing program when he was called into a meeting with school administrators — and expelled for his social media posts. Officials claimed Keefe had violated student conduct standards.
HOW COURTS RULED
In a lawsuit filed in a U.S. District Court following his expulsion, Keefe said that he wanted to be reinstated in the nursing program and sought damages from defendants, including the college’s president and vice president among other university officials.
The U.S. district court dismissed Keefe’s case against the university. He appealed to the Eighth Circuit court, which upheld the university’s decision to expel Keefe.
Free speech groups weren’t pleased with the Eighth Circuit Court’s decision. But now that decision stands.
Before the Supreme Court decided not to hear Keefe v. Adams case, free speech groups had urged the Supreme Court to restrict colleges from punishing students for off-campus speech and social media posts they deem unprofessional.
WHAT THIS MEANS AND WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING
Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, said in a statement that the decision limits the freedoms of college students:
“Even a middle-school student is entitled to First Amendment protection unless her speech substantially disrupts school operations, and the Eighth Circuit’s misguided decision has left college students with lesser free-speech protections than 12-year-olds.”
What’s more, the SPLC says, the case’s outcome could have a chilling effect on student journalism because school administrators could use the case to justify censoring student publications’ stories that don’t reflect well on the school.
Students aren’t particularly keen on colleges having the right to punish students for their posts on social media.
“If I have a free speech zone on campus, why can’t I have a free speech zone off campus?” asks Kandace Washington, a student at Winthrop University. Washington added that if colleges tried to punish students according to student conduct policies for their social media postings that administrators “wouldn’t have time to do anything else.”
Mary Jordan Miller, a senior at Winthrop, believes universities should take an educational approach to disciplining students depending on the situation. “I think if they are going to be punishing them, it doesn’t need to be punitive, it needs to be showing them why that’s problematic and helping them to grow going forward,” Miller told USA TODAY College.
Colleges and students have struggled over social media posts in the past. In 2015, for example, Texas Christian University suspended (but later lifted the suspension) of a student for posts he made on social media about Muslims and protests in Baltimore. And in 2016, a University of Oklahoma student was suspended for social media posts targeting black University of Pennsylvania students.
Ryan Brooks is a Winthrop University student and a USA TODAY College correspondent.
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