Amanda Tatro and Facebook threats: U of M wins against former student

Tatro got an "F" for threats in a Facebook post.

Tatro got an "F" for threats in a Facebook post.

The threatening messages a University of Minnesota student posted to her Facebook page in December 2009 were fair grounds to punish her, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

Amanda Tatro, then a 29-year-old mortuary science student, posted angry updates about a recent breakup. Tatro wrote that she would take out her aggression during an embalming session, but what she really wanted was to "stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar."

Yesterday, the court ruled Tatro's posted threats weren't protected by the First Amendment.

[jump] Tatro posted a series of status updates beginning in November 2009. She called her embalming test subject "Bernie," an allusion to the corpse in "Weekend at Bernie's."

Amanda Beth Tatro Gets to play, I mean dissect, Bernie today. Lets see if I can have a lab void of reprimanding and having my scalpel taken away. Perhaps if I just hide it in my sleeve . . . .
Amanda Beth Tatro Is looking forward to Monday‟s embalming therapy as well as a rumored opportunity to aspirate. Give me room, lots of aggression to be taken out with a trocar.
Amanda Beth Tatro Who knew embalming lab was so cathartic! I still want to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar though. Hmm..perhaps I will spend the evening updating my "Death List #5" and making friends with the crematory guy. I do know the code . . . .
A fellow student saw the posts and told Tatro's professor. Tatro was suspended in mid-December. She was quickly reinstated as a student, but eventually got an "F" in the class. Tatro challenged the "F," saying her Facebook posts should've been protected by the First Amendment.

Tatro's damages in the case were minimal: She stayed in school, and graduated this spring. Her lawyer Jordan Kushner said the case has always been about principle.

A trocar, Tatro's weapon of choice, is used in embalming.

A trocar, Tatro's weapon of choice, is used in embalming.

Though Tatro later acknowledged that the "certain someone" in her post was a reference to her boyfriend, Kushner said as it was, the Facebook threat was "non-specific."

The judgment relied on the idea that public universities, like public high schools and junior highs, are custodians of their students. Kushner said the ruling leaves open the possibility that all college students could be punished for what they think is a private posting.

"If someone decides to tell a joke on Facebook... that uses violence as a metaphor, then I guess a university or college can discipline them," Kushner said. "If some sensitive person from the university -- and there are a lot of sensitive people in academia -- reads it and feels threatened, then that person can conceivably be kicked out of school."

University of Minnesota lawyer Mark Rotenberg said the ruling was part of a "cutting edge area of law."

"There are not hundreds of decisions like this around the country," Rotenberg said, "but it's an emerging issue for public universities."

Rotenberg said the University would be "utterly derelict" if it ignored statements like the one Tatro posted. He said students who post something that threatens violence "or otherwise substantially disrupts the operation of the university" could face discipline in the future.

Kushner said Tatro plans to appeal the decision to the Minnesota State Supreme Court.