Appellate courts generally defer to university decisions in student discipline matters, and courts generally exercise great restraint in cases involving academic discipline that does not result in expulsion or suspension. Accordingly, review of a university decision is limited to an inspection of the record of the administrative tribunal, and the court is confined to questions affecting the regularity of the proceedings and, as to the merits of the controversy, whether the determination was arbitrary, oppressive, unreasonable, fraudulent, made under an erroneous theory of law, or without any evidence to support it. A university's decision may be arbitrary if the university violates its own procedures. Whether a party's constitutional rights have been violated is a question of constitutional interpretation, which the court reviews de novo.
Relator Amanda Tatro is a student in the mortuary-science program at respondent University of Minnesota. The program prepares students to become funeral directors or morticians, and includes laboratory courses in anatomy, embalming, and restorative art. The laboratory courses utilize cadavers donated through the university's anatomy-bequest program. Before taking the laboratory courses, Tatro participated in an orientation program that addressed appropriate conduct with respect to anatomy-bequest-program donors. She signed a disclosure form indicating that she understood and agreed to abide by the program rules. Tatro made made morbid posts on facebook regarding dissecting a certain “Bernie”. Her facebook is set on “friends” and “friends of friends” to view the posts. This reached the directors of the university. As a result, the campus committee on student behavior (CCSB) imposed sanctions to Tatro for engaging in threatening, harassing, or assaultive conduct, in violation of the university’s student-conduct code. These sanctions include 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 challenges respondent university's disciplinary sanctions, arguing that the university's imposition of sanctions was unauthorized, arbitrary, and violated her constitutional rights.
Are the disciplinary sanctions imposed by the university violative of Tatro’s First Amendment right?
The university's disciplinary sanctions were affirmed. University had authority to discipline a mortuary student for Facebook posts that were threatening and that revealed violations of the code of conduct expected of students in the mortuary science program. Such discipline did not violate the First Amendment because the university could discipline students for expression if that expression was likely to materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school. Because other students and teachers found the student's Facebook postings threatening, the university was not precluded from imposing discipline.