Last summer I blogged about the inappropriate Facebook posts of a University of Minnesota mortuary science student. She had posted comments about cadavers, descriptions of embalming as cathartic, made threats to stab someone in the throat, and she nicknamed a cadaver “Bernie” from the classic comedy film “Weekend at Bernie’s.” As a result of her Facebook posts she received academic sanctions. She subsequently filed a court action arguing she had a constitutional right to free speech in her Facebook posts. The Court of Appeals ruled against the student, indicating her “…posts to a social networking website materially and substantially disrupt[ed] the work and discipline of the university.” The mortuary science student has spoken out once again by appealing the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, who heard oral arguments in the case last week.
According to Pioneer Press reporter Emily Gurnon, the student’s attorney argued she was “…off campus when she posted the comments, she didn’t identify the cadaver by name, and she didn’t describe the dissection procedure in detail, which student rules forbid.” Gurnon appeared to have been present for the oral arguments, quoting Jordan Kushner, the student’s attorney, in response to Justice Paul H. Anderson’s question about deference to the University’s sanctions and the need to provide for the safety of students. Attorney Kushner responded “there were no specific threats…That would be a different situation.” Kushner also quoted his client as saying, “She needs to joke and express humor, or she’d be the most miserable person on the planet.”
The right to free speech does not give students or employees carte blanche to say whatever they want. In this case the mortuary student’s remarks were stupid, immature, and disrespectful. Like the saying goes, “Say it, forget it. Write it, regret it.” I am hopeful the Minnesota Supreme Court will give us some guidance and clear up the cultural blur between personal and professional use of social media.