Judge Sides With University Against Student-Teacher With 'Drunken Pirate' Photo

December 04, 2008

A federal judge has ruled against a former student who sued Millersville University of Pennsylvania for denying her a degree in education in connection with an online photo of her drinking, The Washington Post reported.

The former student, Stacy Snyder, sued Millersville in 2007. A year before, the nearby high school where Ms. Snyder was student-teaching had barred her from its campus days before the end of her semester-long assignment. Prior evaluations had criticized her competence and professionalism in the classroom, the legal decision says, but the school’s discovery of a photograph of Ms. Snyder on MySpace — with the caption “drunken pirate” and a note alluding to her strained relationship with her supervising teacher — precipitated the decision to end her assignment.

That prevented Millersville from awarding Ms. Snyder a bachelor’s degree in education. Instead, the university reclassified some academic credits and gave her a degree in English, a decision she appealed and lost. When she sued, alleging violations of her free-speech and due-process rights, she sought the degree in education.

The judge, Paul S. Diamond of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, had already thrown out Ms. Snyder’s due-process claims, and his decision on Wednesday dismissed her free-speech claims as well.

“She was more a teacher than a student,” the decision says. Employees’ speech is constitutionally protected if it relates to matters of public concern, which Ms. Snyder’s MySpace post about her supervising teacher did not, it says. The judge also chronicled her negative performance evaluations.

Legally, students can say more, Ms. Snyder’s lawyer, Mark Voigt, told the Post. “Because she was some sort of de facto employee,” he said, “she got fewer rights than would be afforded the average student.”

Millersville maintained that free speech was not the issue. “This was not about First Amendment rights, it was about performance, and she clearly did not do what was necessary in order to earn a degree in education,” the university’s president, Francine McNairy, told the Post.

The classification of Ms. Snyder as an employee of the high school rather than as a student at Millersville limits the case’s implications for other colleges and universities, but the opinion also refers to a recent decision against Temple University that had unsettled some higher-education lawyers. In that case, DeJohn v. Temple, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the strong free-speech rights of students. —Sara Lipka