Wake Forest Law Review

by: Hanna Monson and Sarah Spangenburg

Introduction

One recent issue circulating the legal world involves whether schools can discipline students for social media posts. In January 2018, the University of Alabama expelled a nineteen-year-old freshman after she posted two videos of her racist rantings to her Instagram account.[1] Another user recorded and posted the video on Twitter, which subsequently went viral and instilled anger both at the University of Alabama campus and across the country. As the University of Alabama is a public university, the student’s expulsion has raised questions surrounding the constitutionality of dismissing a student for using offensive speech. To further consider this constitutional issue, this post highlights some of the arguments made in a factually similar case Keefe v. Adams (8th Cir. 2016).[2] The Eighth Circuit concluded that a student who was removed from the Nursing Program of a college after he posted Facebook posts indicating frustration towards other students in the program did not have his First Amendment nor due process rights violated. While this Eighth Circuit case is the focus of our discussion, it is important to note that a case of this sort has also arisen in the Fifth Circuit, Bell v. Itawamba County School Board, where the Fifth Circuit also decided against the student and determined that his First Amendment free speech rights were not violated.[3]

Facts

Craig Keefe was a student in the Associate Degree Nursing Program at Central Lakes College.[4] Two students complained about posts the Keefe made on his Facebook account.[5] After a meeting with CLC Director of Nursing Connie Frisch during which “[Keefe] was defensive and did not seem to feel responsible or remorseful,” Frisch made the decision that Keefe should no longer be in the program.[6] In a letter sent to Keefe after the meeting, Frisch expressed concerns about Keefe’s professionalism and inability to represent the nursing profession because of his posts.[7] All students enrolled in this program had to follow the Nurses Association Code of Ethics, which included guidance on issues such as “relationships with colleagues and others,” “professional boundaries,” and “wholeness of character.”[8] Keefe appealed this decision to Vice President of Academic Affairs, Kelly McCalla, but the appeal was denied, prompting this lawsuit.[9]

First Amendment Claims

Keefe first contends that his First Amendment rights were violated because “a college student may not be punished for off-campus speech . . . unless it is speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment, such as obscenity.”[10] The Eighth Circuit addressed first the threshold question of whether a public university may even adopt this Code of Ethics.[11] The court held that the state has a large interest in the regulation the health profession, and “[b]ecause professional codes of ethics are broadly worded, they can be cited to restrict protected speech.”[12]

The court then considered Keefe’s contention that the university violated his First Amendment rights. The court held that “college administrators and educators in a professional school have discretion to require compliance with recognized standards of the profession, both on and off campus, ‘so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.’”[13] Keefe’s words showed that he was acting contrary to the Code of Ethics, and “compliance with the Nurses Association Code of Ethics is a legitimate part of the Associate Degree Nursing Program’s curriculum . . . .”[14] The posts targeted and threatened his classmates and impacted their education, as one of the students stated she no longer wished to be in the same clinical as Keefe.[15] Keefe’s words also had the possibility of impacting patient care because adequate patient care requires the nurses to communicate and work together.[16] The court did not wish to interfere with Frisch’s discretion in deciding that Keefe’s actions showed that he was not fit for the profession, and the First Amendment did not prevent Frisch from making this decision.[17] Given that the district court had granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the First Amendment claims, the Eighth Circuit affirmed.[18]

Due Process Claims

The second issue presented in this case was whether a violation of due process existed. Keefe argued that the Defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process when he was removed from the Associate Degree Nursing Program.[19] Supreme Court precedent states that “federal courts can review an academic decision of a public educational institution under a substantive due process standard.”[20] One key inquiry is whether the removal was based on academic judgment that is not beyond the pale of reasoned academic decision making.[21] Even if a substantive due process claim is cognizable in these circumstances, there is no violation of substantive due process unless misconduct of government officials that violates a fundamental right is “so egregious, so outrageous, that it may fairly be said to shock the contemporary conscience” of federal judges.[22] Here, the court determined that Keefe’s removal rested on academic judgment that was not beyond the pale of reasoned academic decision making.[23] Ultimately, the court determined that Keefe had no substantive due process claim.[24]

The court also analyzed the procedural due process claim that Keefe presented. Citing Goss v. Lopez[25], the Eighth Circuit highlighted that the Supreme Court has held that even a short disciplinary suspension requires the student “be given oral or written notice of the charges against him and, if he denies them, an explanation of the evidence the authorities have and an opportunity to present his side of the story.”[26] The court believed that the Keefe’s removal after a disciplinary proceeding provided the kind of inquiry that involved effective notice and allowed Keefe to give his version of the events, thereby preventing erroneous action.[27] Ultimately, the court concluded that Keefe was given the due process he was required by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this issue presents free speech concerns for students. The decisions of the Eighth and Fifth Circuits seem to showcase that students’ free speech rights seem to stop at the door of the school, which contradicts much Supreme Court precedent. The prevalence of social media in today’s society ensures that this issue will continue to exist, and the Supreme Court one day might weigh in.

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[1] Marwa Eltagouri, She was expelled from college after her racist chants went viral. Her mother thinks she deserves it.,Wash. Post (Jan. 19, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2018/01/19/she-was-expelled-from-college-after-her-racist-rants-went-viral-her-mother-thinks-she-deserves-it/?utm_term=.b0cd4c397d35.

[2] The full opinion can be found at: http://media.ca8.uscourts.gov/opndir/16/10/142988P.pdf.

[3] Mark Joseph Stern, Judges Have No Idea What to Do About Student Speech on the Internet, Slate (Feb. 18, 2016 5:15 PM), http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/02/in_bell_v_itawamba_county_school_board_scotus_may_rule_on_the_first_amendment.html.

[4] Keefe v. Adams, 840 F.3d 523, 525 (8th Cir. 2016).

[5] Id.at 526.

[6] Id. at 526–27.

[7] Id. at 527–28.

[8] Id. at 528–29.

[9] Id. at 526, 529.

[10] Id. at 529.

[11] Id. at 529–30.

[12] Id. at 530.

[13] Id. at 531 (quoting Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 273 (1988)).

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 532.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 533.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 533.

[20] Regents of University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214, 222 (1985).

[21] Keefe, 840 F.3d at 533-34.

[22] Cnty. of Sacremento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 847 n.8 (1998) (quotation omitted).

[23] Keefe, 840 F.3d at 534.

[24] Id.

[25] 419 U.S. 565, 581 (1975).

[26] Keefe, 840 F.3d at 535.

[27] Id.

By: Kristina Wilson

On Monday, March 20, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Grutzmacher v. Howard County. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court for the District of Maryland’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, holding that the defendant’s termination of plaintiffs did not violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment Free Speech rights. The plaintiff raises two arguments on appeal.

Facts and Procedural History

Prior to initiating this action, plaintiffs worked for the defendant, the Howard County, Maryland Department of Fire and Rescue Services. In 2011, the defendant started drafting a Social Media Policy (“the Policy”) in response to a volunteer firefighter’s inflammatory and racially discriminatory social media posts that attracted negative media attention. The Policy prevented employees from posting any statements that may be perceived as discriminatory, harassing, or defamatory or that would impugn the defendant’s credibility. Additionally, in 2012, the defendant promulgated a Code of Conduct (“the Code”) that prohibited disrespectful conduct toward authority figures or the chain of command established by the defendant. Finally, the Code required employees to conduct themselves in a manner that reflected favorably on the defendant.

On January 20, 2013, one of the plaintiffs advocated killing “liberals” on his Facebook page while on duty for defendant. The defendant asked the plaintiff to review the Policy and remove any postings that did not conform. Although the plaintiff maintained that he was in compliance with the Policy, he removed the January 20th posting. On January 23, 2013, the plaintiff posted a series of statements that accused the defendant of stifling his First Amendment rights. On February 17, 2013, the plaintiff also “liked” a Facebook post by a coworker was captioned “For you, chief” and displayed a photo of an obscene gesture. Shortly thereafter, the defendant served the plaintiff with charges of dismissal and afforded the plaintiff an opportunity for a preliminary hearing on March 8, 2013. On March 14, 2013, the defendant terminated the plaintiff.

At the district court, the plaintiff argued that the defendant fired him in retaliation for his use of his First Amendment Free Speech rights and that the Policy and Code were facially unconstitutional for restricting employees’ Free Speech. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding the retaliation claims, holding that the plaintiff’s January 20th posts and “likes” were capable of disrupting the defendant’s ability to perform its duties and thus did not constitute protected speech. Similarly, the January 23rd post and February 17th “like” were not protected speech because they did not implicate a matter of public concern. In June of 2015, the defendant revised its Policy and Code to eliminate all the challenged provisions. As a result, the district court dismissed the plaintiff’s facial challenge as moot.

The Plaintiff’s Free Speech Rights Did Not Outweigh the Defendant’s Interest

In evaluating the plaintiff’s First Amendment retaliation claim, the Fourth Circuit applied the Mcvey v. Stacy three-prong test. 157 F.3d 271 (4th Cir. 1998). Under Mcvey, a plaintiff must show the following three conditions: i) that he was a public employee speaking on a matter of public concern, ii) that his interest in speaking about a matter of public concern outweighed the government’s interest in providing effective and efficient services to the public, and iii) that such speech was a “substantial factor” in the plaintiff’s termination. Id. at 277–78.

The first prong is satisfied when a plaintiff demonstrates that his speech involved an issue of social, political, or other interest to a community. Urofsky v. Gilmore, 216 F.3d 401, 406 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc). To determine whether the issue was social, political, or of interest to a community, courts examine the speech’s content, context, and form in view of the entire record. Id. The Fourth Circuit concluded that at least some of the content of plaintiff’s posts and “likes” were matters of public concern because the public has an interest in the opinions of public employees. Although not all of the postings were of public concern, the Fourth Circuit advocated examining the entirety of the speech in context and therefore proceeded to the second prong of the Mcvey analysis.

The Mcvey Factors Weighed More Heavily in Favor of the Defendant

The Fourth Circuit next balanced the plaintiff’s interest in speaking about matters of public concern with the government’s interest in providing efficient and effective public services. The Fourth Circuit used the Mcvey multifactor test to weigh the following considerations: whether a public employee’s speech (1) impaired the maintenance of discipline by supervisors; (2) impaired harmony among coworkers; (3) damaged close personal relationships; (4) impeded the performance of the public employee’s duties; (5) interfered with the operation of the institution; (6) undermined the mission of the institution; (7) was communicated to the public or to coworkers in private; (8) conflicted with the responsibilities of the employee within the institution; and (9) abused the authority and public accountability that the employee’s role entailed. McVey, 157 F.3d at 278.

The Fourth Circuit held that all of the factors weighed in favor of the defendant. The first factor was satisfied because plaintiff was a chief battalion, a leadership position, and allowing plaintiff to violate the Policy and Code without repercussions would encourage others to engage in similar violations. The second and third factors weighed in the defendant’s favor because several minority firefighters issued complaints and refused to work with the plaintiff after the posts. Similarly, the fourth factor weighed in the government’s favor because of the plaintiff’s responsibilities as a leader. The plaintiff’s leadership duties depended on his subordinates taking him seriously and looking to him as an example. By violating the policies he was supposed to uphold, the plaintiff failed to act as a leader and carry out his duties as chief battalion. Finally, plaintiff’s actions also “undermined community trust” by advocating violence against certain groups of people. Community trust and preventing violence are central to the defendant’s mission because the defendant’s function is to protect the community. Therefore, although plaintiff’s speech did involve some matters of public concern, the matters were not of sufficient gravity to outweigh all nine factors of the Mcvey multifactor test. Thus, the government’s interest in effectively providing public services outweighed the plaintiff’s interest in speech about public concerns.

The District Court’s Dismissal of the Facial Challenge on Mootness Grounds Was Proper

While defendant repealed all the challenged sections of the Policy and Code, a party’s voluntary repeal of provisions can only moot an action if the wrongful behavior can be reasonably expected not to recur. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the facial challenge for mootness because the current Fire Chief issued a sworn affidavit asserting that the defendant will not revert to the former Policy or Code. Additionally, the defendant’s counsel at oral argument declared that the defendant has no hint of an intent to return to the former guidelines. The Fourth Circuit held that these formal declarations were sufficient to meet the defendant’s mootness burden.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit affirmed both the district court’s grant of summary judgment and its grant of a motion to dismiss on mootness grounds.