Federal Appeals Court Upholds Removal of College Student for Facebook Posts

A public college had the authority to remove a nursing student from its program for Facebook posts without violating the First Amendment, a federal appeals court has ruled. The decision emphasizes the danger that students take when posting profane or unprofessional remarks online.

Craig Keefe sued officials at Central Lakes College after they removed him from the Associate Degree Nursing Program for lack of professionalism. The concern arose from several of Keefe’s Facebook posts, which included the following:

Doesn’t anyone know or have heard of mechanical pencils. I’m going to take this electric pencil sharpener in this class and give someone a hemopneumothorax with it before to [sic] long. I might need some anger management.

In another post, Keefe called a classmate a “stupid bitch.” After two classmates complained to an instructor, administrators got involved and removed Keefe from the Associate Degree Program.

After an unsuccessful administrative appeal, Keefe sued in federal court, contending that the officials violated his First Amendment, free-speech rights for disciplining him for off-campus, online speech that did not fall into any unprotected speech category, such as obscenity.

After a federal district court ruled against him, Keefe appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On October 26, 2016, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit unanimously ruled in Keefe v. Adams in favor of the college officials and against Keefe.

The 8th Circuit panel noted that “[m]any courts have upheld enforcement of academic requirements of professionalism and fitness, particularly for a program training licensed medical professionals.” The appeals court also noted that the professionalism standards were viewpoint neutral.

One aspect of the court’s ruling is potentially troubling. The 8th Circuit relied in part on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier (1988), a case involving the censorship of a high school newspaper. In Hazelwood, the Supreme Court reasoned that school officials could censor school-sponsored student speech if they had a legitimate educational reason for doing so.

There are two issues of concern. First, Hazelwood applied to high-school students, not college students. Second, Hazelwood involved school-sponsored student speech, not student-initiated speech. Keefe’s Facebook posts were student-initiated speech, not school-sponsored speech.

The 8th Circuit also wrote that “a college or university may have an even stronger interest in the content of its curriculum and imposing academic discipline than did the high school at issue in Hazelwood.”

Presumably, college and university students have greater free-speech protections than high school students. However, that is not the case under the reasoning of Keefe v. Adams.

Mr. Keefe may have shown a complete lack of professionalism in some of his Facebook posts. But, the appeals court’s reasoning shows little regard for college students’ rights to online expression.

David L. Hudson, Jr. is the author, co-author, or co-editor of more than 40 books, including: Let The Students Speak!: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools, The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, and Teen Legal Rights.

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