The battle between educational institutions and loudmouth students who fight for the right to say dumb things is a rich area of recent American history. A student says something inflammatory. The school suspends/fails/disciplines the student. The student sues, and everyone has a big First Amendment debate party.

Usually, I have a lot of sympathy for the schools. Teenagers are, how do I say this, dumb. They think they know everything, and that somehow it’s of cosmic importance that they are allowed to proclaim their love for illegal drugs on campus.

But I cannot abide when schools become the fun police. The University of Minnesota currently falls under this category. In a case that will be heard today by the Minnesota Supreme Court, a mortuary sciences student is fighting to overturn ridiculous penalties levied against her for a couple of (seriously) harmless jokes made on Facebook.

Some commentators are worried about broader implications the case will have on the power colleges have over their students. I’m more upset about the fact that the University of Minnesota can’t take a joke….

The Chronicle of Higher Education gives us the back story in Tatro v. University of Minnesota:

The case began in 2010 when Amanda Tatro was called before the student-conduct board at the University of Minnesota over a series of postings on her personal Facebook page. On her Facebook wall, Tatro had joked about how she and her fellow mortuary-science students had nicknamed their laboratory cadaver “Bernie,” and about stabbing someone with a dissecting knife (a reference, her friends knew, to an ex-boyfriend).

A classmate forwarded the postings to University of Minnesota authorities. A criminal investigation concluded that Tatro had no intent to harm anyone, but the university imposed disciplinary charges anyway, including a failing grade and a mandatory psychiatric exam.

Wait, what? Not only did she get an F, but they had to check if she was crazy? People from Minnesota love to brag about “Minnesota nice.” Now I realize it’s just a cover for the fact that the entire state lacks a sense of humor. I know we all have to be careful about what we post on Facebook. You never know who will read it, yada yada. But, come on.

Not infrequently, I declare that certain people should be defenestrated. One of my close friends has wished that certain corporate lobbyists be thrown into an active volcano. People make outlandish violent statements and off-color jokes as a way to make light of legitimate frustrations or awkward situations (like dissecting a human body). That’s very different from making plausible threats (which is clearly not okay).

The University even acknowledged that Tatro had no intention of hurting anyone (least of all Bernie). She did the reasonable thing and appealed the school’s decision. Still, no dice:

Tatro challenged the penalties, unsuccessfully, before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. She is appealing to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear arguments on February 8. The university’s amicus defenders include the head table of academe: the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and others. My organization, the Student Press Law Center, co-authored a brief in support of Tatro.

God forbid a student makes fun of a cadaver and knocks her ex-boyfriend online. Because it’s disruptive! And American academia will have to bring out the cavalry:

What is important about the Tatro case is not what Amanda said, but why the University of Minnesota believes it may regulate what students say on social-networking pages on their personal time.

The university argues—and the Court of Appeals accepted—that Tatro’s speech was unprotected by the First Amendment because it prompted “disruptive” complaints from supporters of the mortuary-sciences program whose families had donated their bodies for dissection or pledged to do so.

Seriously? Bernie is dead. And I don’t think he will care that his name is not actually Bernie. Because he is dead. Not to be disrespectful, but if you donate your body to science, you’re explicitly allowing a bunch of twenty-somethings to take the vessel which once contained your consciousness apart, piece by piece. (Side note, did you know that you can’t libel someone who is dead?) If the students give your body a nickname, that shouldn’t even register on the scale of disrespect when you’re already laid out on the table and some sorority girl has her hands inside your rib cage.

I hope the Minnesota Supreme Court realizes how stupid this is. Because the last thing we need in this country is to punish people for making jokes.

Free Speech Off Campus Must Be Protected [Chronicle of Higher Education]


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