Case of Minnesota student could set precedent nationwide

Tessa Duvall

A case pending before the Minnesota Supreme Court could set a precedent for the type of punishment, if any, universities can give to students for posts on social media websites.

A verdict in the case of Amanda Tatro v. University of Minnesota is expected later this year, and when it is handed down, it will be among the first rulings on the free speech rights of college students online, according to the Student Press Law Center. The United States Supreme Court has never ruled on this issue.


In late 2009, Tatro was a mortuary science student at the University of Minnesota when she posted Facebook status updates about working with a cadaver in the lab — which she named Bernie after “Weekend at Bernie’s,” and wanting to stab her ex-fiancé, who had just dumped her the night before, in the neck with a piece of lab equipment, according to court documents.

After a classmate saw the statuses, Tatro was reported to an instructor and told not to return to class until further notice. After the police declared that Tatro was not a threat and a crime had not been committed, she was allowed to return to class.

On Dec. 29, 2009, a complaint was filed against Tatro for threatening, harassing or assaultive conduct, as well as violating university rules for the mortuary science program.

A committee meeting about Tatro’s case took place on March 25, 2010, and on April 2, the committee found that Tatro violated the student code of conduct. As a result, Tatro failed her anatomy lab, had to enroll in an ethics course, complete a psychiatric evaluation and was placed on probation for the rest of her academic career.

The punishments have been upheld at the university level by the provost, as well as by the Minnesota State Court of Appeals.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, said although Tatro’s statuses were bad attempts at humor, she was not a legitimate threat to anyone.

However, because the statuses caused a small reaction on campus, the university claimed jurisdiction and punished Tatro, LoMonte said.

“That will be a case that people can look to for some guidance,” he said.

Until the Supreme Court issues a ruling on a case pertaining to social media and free speech, decisions must be made on existing standards, LoMonte said.

“The courts are really struggling to figure out what the rules are on places like Twitter and Facebook,” he said.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate with the SPLC, said although the jokes were crude, it doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be allowed to say them.

“Not everything that’s a good idea is constitutional,” Goldstein said, referring to some clauses meant to protect students in student handbooks. “Government can’t be your parents.”

According to The Minnesota Daily, the student newspaper of the University of Minnesota, University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said the school wouldn’t be able to grade students down or require them to write papers as punishments for code violations if the courts rule in Tatro’s favor.

Additionally, Angela McArthur, the director of the university’s Anatomy Bequest Program, said without the power to enforce mortuary science policies of professionalism, the donations of bodies could stop.

“We have to be the custodians of this trust, or programs like this will fail. They’ll fail miserably,” McArthur told The Minnesota Daily.

Five higher education associations have also filed a brief in support of the university, according to The Minnesota Daily.