ACE filed an amicus brief today in the case Tatro v. the University of Minnesota, which deals with the university’s right to address threats and enforce academic codes of conduct and professional ethics.
In November 2009, Amanda Tatro was a student in the University of Minnesota’s (UMN) mortuary science program. In November and December, Tatro posted comments on her Facebook page that upset and frightened her peers and professors. One comment suggested she was going to hide a scalpel up her sleeve; one suggested she would be taking out her aggression with a trocar (a sharp instrument used in the mortuary lab); yet another said “I still want to stab a certain someone in the neck with a trocar.” A final post suggested that Tatro had taken a lock of her cadaver’s hair and kept it in her pocket.
When these Facebook postings were brought to UMN’s attention, the university called the police. Although the police did not bring charges, the university called a disciplinary hearing to address the matter.
Before the hearing, Tatro went to the local media with her Facebook postings, prompting outcry from donors and beneficiaries of the willed-bodies program at the university. Many were concerned with Tatro’s disrespectful talk of “playing with” her cadaver and taking a lock of hair.
Tatro was ultimately required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, accept a failing grade for her anatomy lab course, take an ethics class and write a letter to a faculty member about the issue of respect in the profession of mortuary science. Notably, she was not expelled from the university or the mortuary science program.
Tatro sued UNM, claiming infringement on her right to free speech. The university was successful in the lower courts, and Tatro has now appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Minnesota.
ACE’s brief in support of UMN emphasizes the threatening nature of Tatro’s Facebook postings, which violated student codes of conduct, and highlights the university’s desire to teach professional ethics in the field of mortuary science. ACE and amici curiae argue that in this case, the university’s determinations are entitled to deference under the tradition of academic freedom.
ACE is joined on the brief by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.