In a decision released this morning, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the University of Minnesota did not violate a student’s free speech rights when it punished her for Facebook posts related to her coursework in the mortuary science program.
It is an important ruling for student freedom of speech, especially as the line between what counts as “on campus” and “off campus” blurs. Like most big rulings, we’ll have to wait and see what other courts do with it before we really know what to think. But here’s why I think it raises more questions than it answers, and could be deeply troubling for all students’ First Amendment rights:
It is particularly fortuitous that the very object of this particular first amendment fight can be used to celebrate its protection.
The White House keeps praising these journalists who are, who’ve been killed … How does that square with the fact that this administration has been so aggressively trying to stop aggressive journalism in the United States by using the Espionage Act to take whistleblowers to court?
- Jake Tapper, pressing White House press secretary Jay Carney on what one might consider to be inconsistency on the administration’s views of doing journalism in the interests of democracy.
[Update: 2/23/12 2:20 p.m.: forgot the hat tip! Thanks tcairwaves!]
Ben Franklin’s Ghost Teaches You Photographer’s Rights
It’s easier than ever to capture images of public goings-on with all our fancy camera gadgets. If you find yourself in the middle of some contentious event—particularly when the police are involved—you should know your rights. And who better to tell you than the singing cartoon ghost of Benjamin Franklin?
The American Civil Liberties Union teamed up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt to bring you this animation about photographing in public. Clearly targeting those of the Occupy Wall Street ilk, the video might just be the most entertaining explanation of your camera rights out there.
“Why, in my day I had to draw charcoal pictures of crimes, and borrow Tom Jefferson’s polygraph to make copies!” - Ben Franklin
The Minnesota Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Tatro v. University of Minnesota tomorrow morning, a case which addresses the question of how much power universities should have to punish students for speech posted online, and off campus. (I wrote about it in the Silha Bulletin last summer.)
The case arose in 2010 following a series of Facebook posts by Amanda Tatro, a student in the U’s Mortuary Science program. Depending on who you ask, the posts were satirical, creepy, or threatening. After law enforcement officials found that the posts could not lead to criminal charges, university officials launched a disciplinary proceeding anyway. Tatro was placed on academic probation and the school required her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation in order to return to classes. The school’s central justification for the punishment was that Tatro’s posts threatened funding for the program by making it look bad.
Think about that for a second. The school is arguing that it should have the power to punish students who speak off-campus when their speech might make the institution look bad, because it might make donors queasy.
If you’re still not getting it, Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center (where I used to work) explains the stakes pretty well in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
“If speech loses its First Amendment protection because it causes so many grantors to withdraw their support that a program’s viability is threatened, which is the legal standard that the university is asking the court to adopt in the Tatro case, then no student may ever feel safe, in any venue, blowing the whistle on wrongdoing.”
It’s an excellent commentary, and you should read the whole thing.
I’ll try to post my take on the oral arguments here tomorrow or Thursday.
In other court news, a settlement has been reached over arrest of Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! producers at the 2008 GOP convention.
According to The Associated Press and Democracy Now!, Goodman and her producers will receive $100,000: $90,000 from St. Paul and Minneapolis, and $10,000 from the Secret Service. I assume the St. Paul end of that bill will come out of the $10 Million insurance policy that the RNC Host Committee took out before the 2008 convention. The Strib reported in June that the bill for various settlements in cases related to the RNC had reached $175,000.
Democracy Now! also reports:
The settlement also includes an agreement by the St. Paul police department to implement a training program aimed at educating officers regarding the First Amendment rights of the press and public with respect to police operations, including proper procedures for dealing with the press covering demonstrations.
I am not too familiar with other settlements like this, but it seems like a solid win for Goodman and Co. I doubt they sued for the money (which, in my view of the video evidence, was justly deserved) but I think the “sensitivity training” required for the St. Paul police is an important step toward clarifying for law enforcement the limits on crowd-control actions that limit legitimate press coverage.
In January 2009, the RNC Commission Report found that police conduct during the event was “restrained and professional,” but said that planning for media coverage of the event and the surrounding protests suffered from “mixed expectations and misunderstandings that could have been avoided.” During the protests, police handled media and media arrests in a variety of ways, confusing journalists about how they could expect to be treated. In response to the commission’s findings, St. Paul police told the Committee to Protect Journalists that it would work with the media to develop protocols for handling journalists in the future, which could include “background checks” in order to issue credentials to journalists who represent “legitimate news organizations.”