Minnesota Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Case of Student Disciplined for Facebook Comments

The Minnesota Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday in a closely watched case that questions whether the University of Minnesota violated a mortuary-science student’s constitutional right to free speech when it disciplined her for comments she posted on Facebook. Some of the comments referred to a cadaver used in an embalming class in a way that upset donors, and one post expressed a wish to stab someone with an embalming tool.

The student, Amanda Tatro, who received her diploma last fall, had argued that the university had no authority to discipline her for off-campus activities. In a decision last July, however, a state court of appeals ruled in favor of the university.

In arguments before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday, Jordan Kushner, a lawyer for Ms. Tatro, stated that his client did not identify the cadaver by name or describe the dissection procedure in detail, which student-conduct rules forbid, The Pioneer Press reported. Because her comments did not violate program rules, he said, “it would not be constitutionally reasonable for the university to restrict that speech.”

Mark Rotenberg, general counsel for the university, argued that the university was enforcing reasonable rules “to meet legitimate pedagogical objectives.”

The justices had questions for both sides, but Mr. Kushner seemed to get the bulk of the interrogation, the newspaper said.

“Do you agree that the mortuary-science program has an interest in the willingness of donors to participate in the program?” asked Justice G. Barry Anderson.

Another justice, Paul H. Anderson, asked why the court should not defer to university officials on a disciplinary matter, saying “they have to provide for the safety of their students.”

Mr. Kushner said he was not arguing that the university should have no authority over those matters. But in the case of Ms. Tatro, he said, there were “no specific threats. … That would be a different situation.”

In comments to the Student Press Law Center after the hearing, Mr. Rotenberg said the university was not advocating for blanket restrictions on student speech. “This is a case about professional training,” he said. “The university is meeting a narrow interest that is context specific.”

The case will be among the first to analyze the free-expression rights of college students online, the law center said. The court did not announce when it might issue its decision.

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