It’s a weird coincidence. Two major First Amendment rulings centered on Facebook rants by university students about plunging sharp objects into other people.
And in both cases, judges poked holes in the right to free speech.
Back in 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the right of the University of Minnesota to fail a mortuary science student, Amanda Tatro, after she posted on Facebook about wanting to “stab a certain someone in the throat” with a sharp tool used to drain fluid from cadavers.
Late last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled 2-1 that Central Lakes College had the authority to toss Craig Keefe out of its nursing program for his Facebook posts. Among them: a suggestion that he would inflict a “hemopneumothorax” — a lung puncture — on someone in his class.
Keefe made the statements outside of class and campus, but that didn’t make them off-limits for determining he was morally unfit for the nursing program.
Wary of the free speech implications, seven advocacy groups joined Keefe’s legal fight: the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the National Coalition against Censorship, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Student Press Law Center.
Nevertheless, the judges ruled that the “First Amendment did not bar [the nursing program director] from making the determination that Keefe was unable to meet the professional demands of being a nurse.”
All of this continues to puzzle Keefe, who’s 41 and lives with his wife and four children just outside Brainerd. “Everyone has the right to express their opinion,” he said last week. “If I don’t like what they’re saying, I have two legs and can walk away.”
Keefe has apologized for what he wrote, which he said happened at a time he was working full-time and studying for his nursing degree an additional 45-50 hours per week. “You don’t have the opportunity to talk to anybody, or vent or anything of that nature. You do it when you can.”
Keefe’s venting took place in the fall 2012.
“Glad group projects are group projects. I give her a big fat F for changing the group power point at eleven last night and resubmitting. Not enough whiskey to control that anger.”
“LMAO [a classmate], you keep reporting my post and get me banded. I don’t really care. If thats the smartest thing you can come up with than I completely understand why your going to fail out of the RN program you stupid b ...”
But the one that really bothered the nursing program director was this: “Im going to take this electric pencil sharpener in this class and give someone a hemopneumothorax with it before to long. I might need some anger management.”
Two students in Keefe’s class complained to the instructor that the statements sounded like threats. Keefe was summoned to a meeting with the nursing program director and the dean of students. Afterward, he received a letter booting him from the program for “behavior unbecoming of the profession and transgression of professional boundaries.”
Keefe appealed, writing in his letter that he had “learned a valuable lesson” and apologizing for “my unethical and unprofessional behavior ...”
When Central Lakes stood fast in its decision, Keefe filed a federal lawsuit. He lost at the district court and got the bad news about the Oct. 26 circuit court ruling when he was coming from his toolmaking job.
“That a graduate student’s unprofessional speech leads to academic disadvantage does not ‘prohibit’ that speech, or render it unprotected; the university simply imposes an adverse consequence on the student for exercising his right to speak at the wrong place and time, like the student who receives a failing grade for submitting a paper on the wrong subject.”
Under that logic, you’re not prohibited from stabbing someone in the chest. You just have to go to jail afterward.
Sophia Cope, staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, calls the opinion “troubling.” It’s one thing for principals of elementary school to stop bullying in class, she said. It’s another thing for university students to worry about posting their thoughts on their Facebook page.
“Schools are feeling like they can, without limitation, discipline students for online speech,” she said.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116