This week EFF joined an amicus brief in support of a college student who was expelled from school for comments he made on Facebook.
Craig Keefe was a nursing student at a public college in Minnesota when he posted several comments on his Facebook profile expressing frustration about certain aspects of the nursing program, including what he considered to be favoritism of female students. Keefe also engaged in a dispute with one of his classmates, calling her a “stupid bitch.” While his Facebook profile was publicly viewable, he was off-campus when he posted his comments and did not use any school resources.
Keefe’s Facebook comments were brought to the attention of school administrators, who concluded that the comments constituted “behavior unbecoming of the profession and transgression of professional boundaries.”
Keefe sued the school administrators under 42 U.S.C. §1983, a federal statute that gives citizens a right to sue state government institutions or officials for violations of individual rights under the federal Constitution. He argued that the expulsion violated his free speech and due process rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. A federal trial judge in Minnesota disagreed and ruled in favor of the school administrators.
We joined the Student Press Law Center, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and the National Coalition Against Censorship in filing the amicus brief in support of Keefe in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The brief argues that the First Amendment protects Keefe because his comments, in part, related to matters of public concern, including alleged gender discrimination in the nursing program. The brief also highlights Supreme Court precedent that states that college students have greater free speech rights than minor students, and that off-campus speech receives greater protection than on-campus speech.
While courts across the country have been struggling with determining how much jurisdiction public school officials should have over the social media lives of students, we believe that Keefe’s case involves a clear violation of his constitutional rights.