Amanda Tatro dead at 31; challenged university’s Facebook policies on First Amendment grounds

City Pages | Student Press Law Center
Amanda Tatro was found dead in her apartment Tuesday morning. She was 31, according to her attorney. In 2009, Tatro, at the time a graduate student in mortuary science at the University of Minnesota, was disciplined by the school for posts on her Facebook wall that made light of dissecting a cadaver and threatened violence against an ex-boyfriend with a medical instrument often used in embalming. Tatro said the threat was a joke and sued on First Amendment grounds. The university countered that Tatro had signed a form acknowledging she would follow a code of conduct toward cadavers used in the course.

Tatro was briefly suspended (and got an “F” in the course) but finished the program. She lost her case, arguing unsuccessfully that the university had no right to suspend her, a ruling the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld last week. The court found that the rules Tatro violated were “narrowly tailored and directly related to established professional conduct standards.”

Writing in the Student Press Law Center’s blog, Frank LoMonte says the Minnesota Supreme Court “sidestepped” the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in its decision. Tinker held that “schools may intercede to prevent or punish student speech only if the speech imminently threatens a ‘material’ or ‘substantial’ disruption of school operations.”

For the first time anywhere, a court has said that speech is unprotected by the First Amendment regardless of whether it disrupts school activities, regardless of whether it uses “curricular” school channels of communication, and regardless of whether it encourages vulnerable young people to use drugs.

Only the Supreme Court can modify its own decisions, LoMonte writes. Had Tatro decided to appeal, the case was a “long-shot” for review:

The Court typically takes cases where lower-court rulings are in irreconcilable conflict with each other — but Tatro is one-of-a-kind. So the Court may take a wait-and-see approach, knowing that a Tatro-like case eventually will come before the federal Eighth Circuit, which will speak with greater authority to questions of constitutional interpretation than a state court.

Tatro’s husband found her unresponsive on the couch this morning, according to a friend.

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