Mortuary Sciences College Student Disciplined for Threatening Facebook Posts–Tatro v. University of Minnesota

By Eric Goldman

Tatro v. University of Minnesota, 2011 WL 2672220 (Minn. App. Ct. July 11, 2011)

This sounds like it could have been an episode of Six Feet Under! Tatro is a student in University of Minnesota’s mortuary sciences department, a step towards working in a funeral home or as a mortician. She made a series of Facebook posts suggesting she would take violent actions towards her cadaver and perhaps against still-living people, including a post (“I still want to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar”) that she admitted she intended for her ex-boyfriend to read. After being alerted to the posts, the university began disciplinary proceedings against her, resulting in the following discipline:

giving Tatro a failing grade in her anatomy-laboratory class and requiring her to enroll in a clinical ethics course; write a letter to mortuary-science department faculty addressing the issue of respect within the department and profession; and complete a psychiatric evaluation. The CCSB also placed Tatro on academic probation for the remainder of her undergraduate career

Tatro claimed she was being improperly disciplined for off-campus behavior. The appellate court disagreed:

Tatro’s posts referenced, albeit anonymously, an anatomy-bequest program donor, spoke of taking out “aggression” in a university class, and mentioned wanting to “stab” an unidentified individual with a trocar….the realities of our time require that our schools and universities be vigilant in watching for and responding to student behavior that indicates a potential for violence.

This takes us back to the unresolved question about when online activity is on-campus or off-campus. This question is bedeviling courts in the K-12 context, as we recently saw in the messy en banc opinions from the Third Circuit (see my original post on the Third Circuit rulings). The question doesn’t get any easier when it arises in the university context. Regarding Tatro’s First Amendment challenge, Eugene Volokh notes the rarity that this opinion applied Tinker to the university context (an expansion from its roots in K-12 education). Applying Tinker, the court found adequate grounds to conclude that Tatro’s posts disrupted the university, referencing both her potential for future on-campus violence as well as the problems her posts caused for future cadaver donations.

She then claimed the university rules didn’t prohibit her behavior. The university claimed she engaged in “threatening” conduct. As Venkat recently noted, courts are treating threats communicated in social media posts very seriously, even if the threats are fairly unspecific–and even though social media posts are often gratuitously hyperbolic and readers know it. There’s a fine line between ill-advised social media rants and truly threatening posts, but there’s a mini-trend in court to collapse those two categories. Unquestionably, Tatro’s posts were ill-advised; and unquestionably, they made other members of the university community nervous. Presented in the cold type of an appellate opinion and divorced from any other context other than knowing they were written by a college student who has chosen a career in death, I’m having a hard time seeing them as truly threatening.

She also violated a university rule that “Conversational language of cadaver dissection outside the laboratory should be respectful and discreet. Blogging about the anatomy lab or the cadaver dissection is not allowable.” Irrespective of the legality of this gag order, it seems like a common-sense restriction given the nature of the subject matter. Tatro tried to argue that blogging and Facebooking are two different things. The court sidestepped the argument but that seemed pretty weak.

This case reminded me a lot of the Yoder v. University of Louisville and Byrnes v. Johnson County CC cases. In Yoder, a nursing student called her patients’ newborn babies “creeps” on her blog, and in Byrnes, nursing students posted a photo of a patient’s placenta to Facebook. In both of those cases, the schools overreacted by expelling the students; and the courts rejected such extreme remedies. In this case, the university’s sanctions were far short of expulsion, so perhaps the more measured response made it easier for the court to accept. In all three cases, the students demonstrated poor professional judgment–a not uncommon thing among college students, but it still disappoints educators who are trying to inculcate students with higher professional standards. The University of Minnesota apparently had taken several steps to educate the mortuary science students about the need to respect their profession, an effort that’s clearly needed.