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Minnesota Supreme Court case puts freedom of speech on trial

Amanda Tatro as seen during an interview with Fox9 News. Tatro says the situation has gotten out of hand and that she "is not a monster." (photo/ askthejudge.info)

The battle over whether or not Facebook is a private or public domain has been raging since about the creation of the social media site. Up until two weeks ago, no court has been willing to step out into the mine eld to take on the corporate giant, but now one University of Minnesota student has forced the state’s Supreme Court to take a stance.

In 2009, UM student Amanda Tatro
 was punished by the University after
a fellow student reported some of the Facebook statuses Tatro had posted about her mortuary science lab. Tatro wrote that she wanted to stab someone in the throat (updating her “death list”) and wrote other comments about the cadaver she was working on in class.

The case was heard by the University’s student conduct committee and the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which both backed the University’s decision— Tatro was given an F in her mortuary class, she was required to take a course on ethics, write a letter of apology to faculty about respect in the lab and undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

But three weeks ago, Tatro appealed the decision again, this time going to the highest court in the state: the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The court’s decision, which is expected to come within the next three to ve months, could have larger implications than just whether or not Tatro’s reputation is cleared. Many civil liberties groups and UM students alike, including Tatro, argue that the very right to freedom of speech is at stake.

If the Supreme Court was to rule in the University’s favor, it could set a precedent that all universities can punish their students for off-campus action, including those taking place on the Internet.

In last week’s Twitterchat, hosted by the University’s student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily (the Daily), one student tweeted, “How will the outcome of this case affect future students? Will they (the University) monitor our Facebook/Twitter to see posts about our classes?”

Another student questioned whether or not Tatro’s Facebook pro le was public or not, and did it make a difference?

Still further, a student reported that one of the rules for the mortuary class is that a student “can’t blog about their class. (Facebook=blog?),” to which another student replied, “Is it fair to punish someone who wasn’t made aware that Facebook is considered blogging?”

Clearly, student rights on Facebook,
or social media sites in general, are not de ned, the result of which currently has the courts stalled as to where to go from here.

Despite countless complaints from employees, saying they were red because of a Facebook post, no of cial action has ever been taken to declare whether or not the termination is legal. In fact, this lack
of response has already set the precedence that it is in fact legal to not only look up employees’, perspective employees’ or even perspective students’ Facebook pro les, but to refuse admittance to the person because of something found on their page.

Based on this record, it would seem
the court could easily piggy-back off the triumphs of employers in cases like these. As other tweeting students pointed out, however, the question is larger than just whether or not Facebook is private or public and if it constitutes as freedom of speech.

“This should be two cases, one about free speech and one about con dentiality in mortuary science,” a UM student tweeted.

In her rst posts, Tatro wrote that she wanted to “stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar” and update her “Death List #5.”

Tatro told the Daily that the post was merely her venting after her ancé dumped her. It was not a threat.

Nevertheless, the University took immediate action after a concerned informant showed the University Tatro’s posts.

The appellate court ruled that a University’s rst obligation is to protect its students, even from perceived threats. If
a student was made to feel uncomfortable enough to report the incident, then the University had to act. Thus, the University was in full right to discipline Tatro for off- campus actions.

But there were other offenses to consider.

In her second postings, Tatro wrote about getting to “play, I mean dissect, Bernie,” the name she had given her cadaver in class. Later, she expressed grief in a post over losing Bernie, who she referred to as her “best friend,” and said she pocketed a lock of the cadaver’s hair for sentimental reasons.

Tatro argued that she named him out of respect: “I gave him a name because, to me, he wasn’t just a body. To me, he was a person,” Tatro told the Daily. She said it was not uncommon for students to name their cadavers.

Furthermore, Tatro said all of her posts were simply references to pop culture: The name “Bernie,” came from the 1980s comedy “Weekend at Bernie’s,” “Death List #5” was from “Kill Bill” and the lock of hair comment was a lyric from a Black Crowes song.

Tatro said she never actually took a lock of the cadaver’s hair.

The police found there to be no crime, but to the University, Tatro’s crime was violating the ethics and code of conduct for the Anatomy Bequest Program, which provides the bodies for the mortu- ary science classes.

They fear that Tatro’s actions could jeopardize donors’ willingness to give their bodies to science. The University is just one of two in the state that is cleared to work with cadavers, and many surgeons look to the school to practice organ transplants before entering the eld.

The Daily reported that once word
of Tatro’s posts got out into the media, people were calling the University, upset by Tatro’s lack of respect for the dead and their families.

Ultimately, Executive Director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education Gretchen Warner told the Daily that Tatro’s “behavior was unethi- cal and that just doesn’t belong in the eld anywhere.”

Warner brings up the point of many UM professors: It is the University’s job to teach students professional standards, and its right to discipline violators.

If a juror or a doctor was to reveal information about a case on their social media pro les, the act would be con- demned as a serious violation of con - dentiality and disciplinary action would follow immediately. Tatro’s case should be no different, they argue.

The debate has advocates on both sides up in arms.

The next few months will be cru- cial, as the Minnesota Supreme Court continues to hash out the new rules for freedom of speech in a social media world.

Regardless of the outcome, both sides have a dog in the ght: Either student expression could be sti ed or universi- ties could fall prey to the potentially harmful actions of its students and educators would remain powerless to discipline out-of-school ethical viola- tions.

Tatro says if she does not win this case she will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Review will continue to follow the case of Tatro v. University of Min- nesota as it progresses. Visit the Daily’s Web site to read more on the case: “From Facebook to Court: U defends discipline” at http://www.mndaily. com/2012/02/13/facebook-court-u- defends-discipline.

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