Supreme Court: University Can Punish Student For Violent Facebook Comments About Cadaver

By Justin Lafferty 

A note to college students venting on Facebook: You can be punished for violent comments made on the website, even if the target is dead. That’s what the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled recently after the University of Minnesota punished a mortuary student for morbid comments about a cadaver.

According to the Pioneer Press, the Supreme Court declared that the university did not violate the free speech rights of a mortuary student who made violent Facebook posts about a cadaver she was working on in anatomy class.

What exactly did she post?

In November and early December 2009, while a junior in the Mortuary Science Program at the University of Minnesota, Tatro wrote on her Facebook page about the cadaver she was working with, referring to it as “Bernie,” a reference to the movie Weekend at Bernie’s.

Tatro also wrote, “I still want to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar though,” and “Give me room, lots of aggression to be taken out with a trocar.”

A trocar is a long hollow needle inserted into the body during embalming to release gas and fluids.

Tatro also wrote “Hmm..perhaps I will spend the evening updating my ‘Death List No. 5,’ ” and that she would soon stop seeing “my best friend, Bernie,” adding “Bye, bye Bernie. Lock of hair in my pocket.”

The University of Minnesota found out about her Facebook activity and filed a formal complaint against the student, saying that her comments caused staff members to be concerned for their safety. The college gave her an F for the anatomy class and required her to take an ethics course and undergo a psychiatric exam. The student eventually did earn a degree in 2011.

However, after graduating, she appealed the university’s punishment, saying that her Facebook page was a place to express her emotions and exercise her right to free speech.

But free speech groups are actually seeing the ruling as a partial win. Writer Richard Chin explains:

Although Tatro lost her case, some free speech advocates said they were relieved by the ruling’s limits, which they said applied only to the online conduct of a student in a professional program.

Readers: For students posting about their classes on Facebook, where should the free speech line be drawn?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.