Every college student’s typical day consists of social media; updating Facebook in college comes second only to breathing. To many, Facebook is an open forum for anyone, including students, to say whatever they’re doing or feeling at any given moment.
Amanda Tatro, a mortuary science student at University of Minnesota in 2009, however, found out the hard way that Facebook and the First Amendment don’t always go hand-in-hand.
After updating her status to wanting to “stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar” among other things, Tatro’s Facebook was brought by a classmate to police and a student conduct committee. Although police found she had not committed a crime, the committee deemed Tatro’s posts unprofessional and threatening, violating a code of conduct for the Anatomy Bequest Program, which provides cadavers for mortuary science majors at the U of M.
Tatro’s punishment for posts she describes as “just venting” included failing MORT 3171, writing a letter to faculty on respect, undergoing psychiatric evaluation, enrolling in an ethics course, and being placed on academic probation.
This week, Tatro is pleading her case against the university to the highest court in Minnesota to prove that her right to free speech off campus was violated. Many argue that if judgment is found for the university, it will change the application of the First Amendment at every government-owned entity in the nation.
Kathleen Richardson, director and associate professor of news/internet in Drake’s SJMC, agrees.
“It’s a slippery slope when you start allowing public universities to start censoring student speech. Especially speech that occurs off campus,” Richardson said. “Once you start punishing college students who are adults for what they say on social media, it’s a slippery slope as far as where you draw the line.”
She further explained that because the University of Minnesota is a public university, its students and staff members have First Amendment rights defined by the government. However, at private entities, she said, students can be censored according to university policies.
Drake students, though, need not worry, she said.
“Even though Drake is a private institution, it has had a history of embracing free speech on campus, and dealing with speech that some might find offensive by just encouraging more speech and more discussion,” Richardson explained.
Nevertheless, Richardson said she would still advise students to be careful of the potentially threatening comments they make on the internet because individually, people can still take action against other people for their negligence, threatening comments, or hate speech.
“I think students need to be aware of the fact that when you’re posting things on your Facebook page, when you’re contributing to Twitter, that you’re throwing it out there to a wider audience, and that somebody who could be offended by this could have access to it,” she said.