We’re living in a fascinating historical period where American courts are grappling with the question of where the boundaries between free speech and socially unacceptable behavior lie.
In a case involving a mortuary student, a cadaver named Bernie and threatening statements made on Facebook about updating a “death list,” the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the University of Minnesota’s right to discipline the student, finding that:
“Schools may limit or discipline student expression if school officials ‘reasonably conclude that it will materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school’….Whether or not [the student] intended her posts to be satire or mere venting does not diminish the university’s substantial interest in protecting the safety of its students and faculty and addressing potentially threatening conduct.”
Minnesota attorney Marylee Abrams analyzed the court’s decision and noted that:
“Based on the Court’s rationale, we can extrapolate a few take-aways. Clearly, the Court took note of the fact there was an adopted social media polity which established notice and expected accountability. Training on the policy, and requiring a signed acknowledgment form indicating receipt of the policy, were also mentioned by the Court as important to their ruling. Finally, if social media use can be proven to disrupt work and discipline, it is less likely to be determined to be protected speech.”