Nursing Student Sues After U. of Louisville Expels Her for Online Posts About Patients

March 13, 2009

A former nursing student at the University of Louisville sued the institution in federal court yesterday, alleging that it had violated her free-speech and due-process rights by expelling her for her posts on MySpace, where she wrote about her patients, gun rights, and abortion, among other issues.

The former student, Nina Yoder, says that an instructor summoned her to a meeting on February 27 where an associate dean suggested that she might have a gun, and security officers frisked her. The dean, citing concerns with Ms. Yoder’s MySpace blog, then told her she had been withdrawn from all courses and barred from the campus.

In a letter to Ms. Yoder, the nursing school said that she had violated its honor code by identifying herself as a student in “internet postings regarding patient activities.” The nursing school’s honor code holds students to “the highest standards of honesty, integrity, accountability, confidentiality, and professionalism” in “written work, spoken words, actions, and interactions with patients, families, peers, and faculty.”

Federal privacy law prevents campus officials from discussing individual students’ cases, but a spokesman for the University of Louisville said in a written statement that “there are several processes available for students who seek review of any decisions affecting their academic status.”

Before filing the lawsuit, Ms. Yoder had appealed her expulsion. The university denied the appeal. However, Ms. Yoder opted not to file an “academic grievance” with the university, said her lawyer, Daniel J. Canon.

Ms. Yoder’s blog posts, which Internet searches don’t turn up but which she attached to her lawsuit, discuss anonymous patients’ cases. In one post, she mentions a 31-year-old woman who attempted suicide with an overdose of Tylenol, saying that she was “sucking up some valuable Nurse’s Aide time around the clock, so they can sit there and listen to some more of her ‘boo hoo poor me.’”

Another post describes Ms. Yoder’s anti-abortion views and patients’ surprise when they discover that they’re pregnant. “We get Virgin Marys by the bundle at the clinic each day,” the post says. “Then they go and surgically expel the unwanted fetus out of their body, unaware that it may be the next Jesus they’re dumping into the biohazard bin.”

Ms. Yoder also mentions a nursing instructor’s comment, in class, that nurses should not label patients or reveal biases, as well as her response that alcohol abuse is a choice. “As soon as I uttered those words of truth,” Ms. Yoder writes, “the whole room of 39 future nurses nigh exploded. One girl in fact actually screamed at me something in the area of me not belonging in the sacred profession of nursing because I am being too judgmental and loud-mouthed.”

In another post, Ms. Yoder acknowledges her antagonism: “I like to piss people off, that is, up to the point till it backfires.”

Courts generally uphold universities’ disciplinary sanctions as long as their processes involve “some kind of notice” and “some kind of hearing” — standards from a Supreme Court ruling in 1975 involving high-school students in Ohio. Ms. Yoder says she was denied both, and she asks to be reinstated as a student. —Sara Lipka