State Court Says University Can't Punish Student For Off-Campus Tweets

from the the-things-to-like-about-this-case-do-not-include-the-plaintiff dept

The Appeals Court of Kansas has upheld a lower court’s decision finding it beyond the reach of a university to expel a student for off-campus behavior.

Beneath this logical conclusion are some not-so-pretty facts. The origin of the lawsuit is a “bad breakup” that resulted in criminal charges for the former boyfriend, Navid Yeasin. (h/t That Anonymous Coward)

In Johnson County during the summer of 2013, an argument occurred between Yeasin and his now ex-girlfriend after he saw messages from another man on her phone. The two drove around arguing and she asked Yeasin to let her out, but he refused. He also refused to return her phone.

She complained to the Johnson County police. Court records show Yeasin was charged with criminal restraint, battery and criminal deprivation of property. To resolve this incident, Yeasin voluntarily entered a no-contact order, meaning he could not contact his ex-girlfriend.

What Yeasin did next did not play a role in this decision, which was ultimately decided on the merits (or lack thereof) of the University of Kansas’ interpretation of its own policies. But it does say something about the reach of the school’s no-contact order (the school added its own on top of the one handed down by the county court), which was certainly further than it should have been.

“The Judge who entered the order ruled that it was entered by consent with no findings of abuse,” [attorney Terry] Leibold said. “In order to comply with the no-contact order, Navid removed the ex-girlfriend as a follower of his tweets. His Twitter account was private and could only be accessed by his followers.”

Yeasin still used his Twitter account to make disparaging remarks about his ex-girlfriend (referred to simply as “W” throughout the proceedings). But he never directed messages towards her. He tweeted about her but never used her name. This didn’t keep the tweets from being mostly despicable and they certainly were “decoded” by those familiar with both parties, but the university’s no-contact order went far enough to make even this indirect non-communication a potential violation. From the ruling:

You are hereby informed that this ‘no contact’ order means that you understand you are prohibited from initiating, or contributing through third-parties, to any physical, verbal, electronic, or written communication with [W.], her family, her friends or her associates. This also includes a prohibition from interfering with her personal possessions. . . . Moreover, retaliation against persons who may pursue or participate in a University investigation, whether by you directly or by your associates, is a violation of University policy.

On the same day the university opened its investigation into his off-campus actions, Yeasin tweeted:

On the brightside you won’t have mutated kids. #goodriddens

After being informed of the university’s no-contact order, he tweeted:

Jesus Navid, how is it that you always end up dating the psycho bitches?’ #butreallyguys

Over the next few weeks, he tweeted the following:

Oh right, negative boob job. I remember her.

If I could say one thing to you it would probably be “Go fuck yourself you piece of shit.” #butseriouslygofuckyourself #crazyassex

Lol, she goes up to my friends and hugs them and then unfriends them on Facebook. #psycho #lolwhat

These tweets were reported to the university. (No reports were made to law enforcement.) The university’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access (IOA) sent Yeasin an email telling him that even though the tweets didn’t mention W’s name, they were still a violation of the no-contact order, which was expanded to cover even more potential communications.

Brooks gave Yeasin a second warning that “[g]oing forward, if you make any reference regarding [W.], directly or indirectly, on any type of social media or other communication outlet, you will be immediately referred to the Student Conduct Officer for possible sanctions which may result in expulsion from the University.”

Seven hours later, Yeasin tweeted:

lol you’re so obsessed with me you gotta creep on me using your friends accounts #crazybitch

Yeasin was summoned by the IOA, where he made conflicting statements about whether or not the tweets referred to W. He also made this concession:

Yeasin told McQueeney that he would not tweet anything that could be perceived as being directed at W. and he recognized doing so was a violation of both the protection order and the no-contact order.

The university moved ahead with its investigation and decided Yeasin’s tweets had violated the no-contact order and expelled him, along with banning him from the campus until W. had graduated.

Yeasin then sued the university for kicking him out over incidents that had occurred off-campus, including the original confrontation that had resulted in his arrest. The lower court found in favor of Yeasin.

[G]iven its finding that the University erroneously interpreted the Student Code by applying it to off-campus conduct, the district court found that the University’s decision that Yeasin violated Article 22 was not supported by substantial evidence because it failed to establish that Yeasin’s conduct occurred on campus or at a university-sponsored event.

The district court ordered that the University readmit Yeasin, reimburse or credit Yeasin for his fall 2013 semester tuition and fees that he paid, and pay the transcript fees. However, the court issued a stay order at the University’s request.

The appeals court agrees. It points out that the sections of the student code the university cited to support its expulsion of the student both contain wording that limits the university’s discipline to actions taken on campus or during university-sponsored events.

Through every step of the disciplinary proceedings, the University relied on Article 22 of the Student Code as the basis for Yeasin’s discipline. But, on appeal, the University cherry-picks a small phrase from Article 20 to argue that it did indeed have the authority to expel Yeasin for his actions in Johnson County during the summer and for his tweets in violation of the no-contact order.

The University asks us to find that the district court should have interpreted the phrase “or as otherwise required by federal, state or local law” found in Article 20 to mean that the University’s jurisdiction to discipline a student for violating Article 22.A. extended to a student’s off-campus conduct.

[…]

If we construed Article 20 as the University wants, we must insert words to the effect “for conduct wherever committed.” The phrase then becomes, “or as otherwise required by federal, state, or local law for conduct wherever committed.” If that is what the drafters of the Student Code meant, the article could have been written in that fashion.

Following this conclusion, the appeals court affirms the lower court’s decision and lifts the stay order. Because the case was limited to school policies, the question of whether Yeasin’s speech was protected by the First Amendment (almost definitely) isn’t addressed.

While it’s hard to conjure up much enthusiasm for an abusive jerk being told he’s right by the appeals court, the decision prevents the eruption of negative side effects. For one, Kansas universities will still have to limit their disciplinary efforts to incidents on school property or during school-sponsored events. No one should be in any hurry to allow educational institutions to extend their reach into the private lives (and homes) of their attendees.

On top of that, there’s the nature of the tweets themselves. While undeniably unpleasant and misogynistic, they were never aimed directly at W. Also unaddressed by the court’s decision is the breadth of the university’s no-contact order, which basically forbade Yeasin from engaging in private disparagement of his ex-girlfriend.

From Yeasin’s lawyer:

The tweets made their way back to the ex-girlfriend who told the IOA about the tweets claiming the tweets were in violation of the no-contact order issued by the IOA…The tweets were no different than if Yeasin had complained to his friends about his ex-girlfriend and whatever he said ultimately reached the ex-girlfriend.”

The ruling here makes sense, even as it protects the unsavory actions and words of an apparently terrible person. But it is very much limited to the policies in place at the University of Kansas. The ruling notes that the school could claim jurisdiction over events occuring off-campus, but it apparently hadn’t considered that angle until it was in the middle of a lawsuit. Expanding that reach may be the school’s perogative, but any attempts it makes to control off-campus speech will only result in addtional lawsuits — these ones predicated by the First Amendment.

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Comments on “State Court Says University Can't Punish Student For Off-Campus Tweets”

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49 Comments
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You understand that she went and sought out these tweets.
She went out of her way to obtain access to see tweets she was no longer privy to, so she could be offended.
The tweets didn’t mention her by name, we not directed at her, and if not for her pursing them she would have been unaware of them.

How do you bully someone when they have the entire system on their side, and they decide that subjecting themselves to more of these comment by their own actions?

What dude did was stupid at the start, but then he paid the price and took steps to avoid hassles. She sought out access to his tweets that were not public, and then complained that the tweets that did not name her or use her name were all hostile to her. When people break up they say things about the other party, its very common. What is uncommon is to go out trying to gather thing things that could offend you so you can be offended and demand that the other party pay a price for you seeking out ways to be offended.

He didn’t follow her around campus, post flyers on campus, or have any contact with her other than the contact she initiated to get revenge on him for not having a glowing memory of her.

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: Re:

Hi TAC, please can you confirm where

She sought out access to his tweets that were not public, and then complained that the tweets that did not name her or use her name were all hostile to her. When people break up they say things about the other party, its very common. What is uncommon is to go out trying to gather thing things that could offend you so you can be offended and demand that the other party pay a price for you seeking out ways to be offended.

I’ve seen no evidence of this in the articles linked. Having been on the end of a sustained disparagement campaign (slander/libel, whatever) I find that a) chatting crap about you to mutual friends can and does find its way back to you sooner or later (it only takes one stirrer (or concerned friend) in your mutual circles to retweet or screenshot and post a tweet for you to find it in your stream) and b) it can and does affect their relationships with you as they end up believing that it MUST be true if “everyone is saying it” or he’s committed to that narrative.

Sorry, but until you can confirm with evidence of any kind that she ACTIVELY WENT LOOKING FOR THE HIDDEN TWEETS just so she could complain about them later in some Fatal Attraction-style act of vengeance won’t hold water with me.

I think we’re both reacting to different experiences we’ve personally had and I for one am willing to admit that mine has certainly affected my perception of this case. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but that’s where it’s coming from.

JMT says:

Re: Re:

“Bullying is a troubling aspect that you are not mentioning.”

I think Tim made it pretty clear his behavior was despicable, but that’s not the point of the article, which was the school’s over-reach in punishment.

“The tweets and such finds their way to W causing the hostile school environment.”

The tweets weren’t in the school environment, they were on Titter, where she had to actively seek them out.

Sympathy for the victim is understandable but not a good enough reason for the university to be able to do what they did.

Anonymous Coward says:

> with [W.], her family, her friends or her associates. …

Can you say “impermissibly vague”? I knew you could!

She’s at a University. She lives in a town. Her “associates” could conceivably be “everyone within a 10 mile radius”, and is a class that can be expanded at any time.

While it didn’t come up here as an issue, it could have. I’m a bit surprised the guy’s lawyer didn’t stomp on that thread as well, while he had the court’s attention.

> I have a problem with the reasoning here. Bullying is a troubling aspect that you are not mentioning. The tweets and such finds their way to W causing the hostile school environment.

Yeasin did no bullying; that would have required direct communication. Don’t play that card, it doesn’t work here.

Were Yeasin’s comments pervasive? Did EVERYONE on campus know about them? Did a select few know, who then tormented the ex with them intentionally? Did a few “well meaning friends” report what he was saying about her “behind her back”? (What does that say about her friends? What does this say about Yeasin’s triage of his friends/followers list?) This is the sort of thing you have to consider before you start calling things “a hostile environment”.

Was Yeasin a douche? Certainly. Was the university right to tell him to stop bothering her? Within their remit, sure. Was the gag order appropriately constructed? Not really.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Reading, its hard.

He was talking to a nonpublic group on twitter. Pursuant to the first demands he had removed her from this group.
What he did was stupid, and funny he abided by what the actual legal system said he needed to do.
Because he was unhappy with how the relationship ended, he vented his frustrations.

One could make the same argument that she was unhappy with him not trying to get back with her and sought out ways to punish him further by seeking out ways to be offended.
Unhappy with the legal system not locking him away for a trillion years, she then took up her butthurt with the campus who decided 6 tweets that were not sent to her, did not name her were a giant violation of the rules.
They did not ask how she became aware of these tweets, which raises a serious question about if she was violating the no-contact order knowing he would be punished for her trying to still be involved in his life.

This is another case where having a penis is the worst possible crime, and no one is allowed to question the poor girl who the system will fall all over itself to violate that penis wielders rights to protect.

You have a bad breakup, you don’t get to decide that only 1 party can not talk to about their feelings. He wasn’t sitting outside her classes calling her bad things, he didn’t paper the school in flyers, he tweeted 6 times to a group of his friends from a protected twitter account that only followers could see.

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: Re:

Sorry, TAC, I can’t help feeling you’ve been reading too many of a certain defense lawyer’s “Varsity Girls Are Hypersensitive, Vengeful Whores” blog posts.

While it’s true that SJWs can and do cause problems by over-reacting to alleged incidents, not all college girls are SJW-types. This kid was driven around against her will by this loser, who also took her phone and would not give it back. At no point has she attempted to draw attention to herself (she’s known as “W”, not Yer One Who Drags A Mattress Around Campus). It’s not even clear from the documents as to how she got hold of the information about his tweets. Easy, tiger.

It seems to me that she felt threatened by his statements, which may well have been reported to her via mutual friends. Remember the one where he LOLed at her unfriending some mutual friends on FB? That is not the act of someone who wants to keep tabs on an ex.

Finally, social media has a similar effect to shouting outside the classroom or posting flyers on the wall; if it’s set to private only people in that zone can see the tweets, but they CAN see them. How do either of us know there were only six tweets in question?

I know I’m prone to jumping to conclusions based on personal experience and you can totally call me out for it if you want to, but I’m willing to admit that sometimes they’re the wrong ones.

NotWorking says:

Ad Hominem

This article feels like character assassination. Overreaction for the fail.

Tons of people say cruel things about their exes. Griping to friends is a time-honored tradition, and it doesn’t mean the speaker is a big jerk — it just means they’re upset over the breakup.

If you think the guy did morally repugnant things, talk about them, but don’t assert that he’s a scumbag just because he crudely ranted about his ex girlfriend in semi-private. That happens all the time.

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: Re: Ad Hominem

That would have been the thing to do. I think one or two of them either thoughtlessly shared the comments elsewhere and she found them OR someone who “only wanted to help” brought them to her attention.

People who take the smack-talking seriously and join in are usually the cause of escalations like this.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Ad Hominem

Griping to friends is a time-honored tradition, and it doesn’t mean the speaker is a big jerk — it just means they’re upset over the breakup.

What about this part: “The two drove around arguing and she asked Yeasin to let her out, but he refused. He also refused to return her phone.”

That goes way beyond griping to friends about a bad breakup.

Anonymous Coward says:

To be honest, I’ve always found that invasion into what you do on your private life from universities and schools creepy at best.

What you do on campus may be their problem, but what you do out of campus isn’t their business at all.

That would have never been an issue here, because a University would have never been allowed to poke their nose at this.

And in case you amuricans ask, I’m talking about public universities (yeah, state owned and sponsored), that are a majority here (and their quality is pretty good). In fact, private ones may be more invasive than public ones on that, but even them they wouldn’t be allowed much leeway on that.

And yeah, talking about your ex in private/semi-private is an honored tradition of broken couples. I would have wanted to see many people’s reaction if it was the girl the one who had talked like that about her ex-boyfriend.

Because the reverse happens too. And plenty. And girls are as bad as boys in that.

Btw, if we are going to condemn jerks… he was a jerk, but his ex-GF sure earned a lot of points in that too. Because, you know, cheating on your partner does count as a jerky behaviour IMO.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Because, you know, cheating on your partner does count as a jerky behaviour IMO.

Did she? “In Johnson County during the summer of 2013, an argument occurred between Yeasin and his now ex-girlfriend after he saw messages from another man on her phone.”

Maybe there is more information elsewhere that you’ve seen, but this could be anything from crazy overblown jealousy on the part of the boyfriend to cheating on the part of the girlfriend.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, I’m assuming, of course.

We got a saying here that is something like “Think the worst and you won’t be disappointed”.

I would have thought the same if it was a man.

In fact, I bet that anyone would assume that their partners are cheating on them if they find out messages of another man/woman on their partner’s phone.

Of course, “we are just friends” and “this isn’t what it looks to be”.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

In fact, I bet that anyone would assume that their partners are cheating on them if they find out messages of another man/woman on their partner’s phone.

Seriously? I hope that is not true, because that is really sad. There so many other reasons besides an affair that a person might text someone of the opposite sex. I know there are people who would make that assumption, but I always figured that was the borderline insane jealous type, not the typical reaction.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

…What you do on campus may be their problem, but what you do out of campus isn’t their business at all…

That’s true as long as the school’s name is not invoked in any way. If they’re wearing any school clothes, displaying a school ID, in a school vehicle (even if it’s not marked), or saying the school’s name at any time then the school can treat the situation as if it occurred on school property. And there have been court cases – not just with schools but with employers as well – whereby the school/employer was held liable for the off-property conduct of the student/employee.

In this particular case it does NOT appear that the school’s name was invoked, so the court’s decision is legally proper.

RedBeard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“And there have been court cases – not just with schools but with employers as well – whereby the school/employer was held liable for the off-property conduct of the student/employee.”

Citation please, for a case where a student, not acting as an agent/representative of a school, resulted in the school having any liability for the student’s off campus activity. That sounds like a very interesting case.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

First, that happens with the universities in the US. Not with many universities around the world.

See that I mentioned “here” later on that quote, and “you amuricans”, because I wasn’t talking about that crazy system you got there, where you allow your educational institutions (universities, schools and such) to punish you for your behaviour out of campus.

Also, your liability laws are pretty stupid too. You guys sure love involving 3rd parties that should never been involved in your screwups.

You see, here (EU country), even for some actions in campus the university isn’t responsible or involved. For example, someone kills another guy in campus? The police comes, they arrest the guy, the people who saw it testify and they take their wrath on the assassin. The university is innocent and uninvolved. And no, in fact, the guy won’t be expelled.

You do something wearing university uniform or university ID? That’s your problem. The university washes their hands over what you do, because they are merely educational institutions, not your moms.

For starters, most of our universities don’t even have an uniform, and the IDs aren’t to be displayed, but to be used in campus (like on computers), the same way as a credit card.

You mention their name? You might find yourself sued for defamation if it’s bad enough, as anyone mentioning their name would.

We are smart enough to separate what a person does from the organizations he belongs to.

The same applies to any personnel working on the university. The university is involved when it’s a case of their procedures or the actions done by their members in related activities bringing harm to others.

They are supposed to ensure your safety, up to a point. You’re an adult, so you’re responsible of what you do.

You see, I remember that one of my professors got involved with one of his students (she was like 26 and he was over 50), well, not sure if she was one of his students when they started, didn’t get into details. He even divorced his wife and all that fuss. There was a lot of gossipping, but there weren’t consequences involved for what happened: he was an adult, she was an adult and it was their private life.

He still kept being a professor there, and to be honest, I got no problems with that. The only thing I care about is about what they do on their classes and on the exams. Their private life is theirs.

Schools are a bit different, because they deal with minors and such they are responsible for their safety in school. And yet, what a kid does out of campus (campus includes the services here, such as commuting by bus), is their own problem.

Some kids bully another kid that belongs to their school? Is it out of school grounds? Then the school doesn’t get involved, it’s up to the parents to sort that out. They may ask for advice from the school, but that’s it.

A kid breaks public property out of school grounds? The school won’t do a thing, it’s uninvolved. The police, they for sure will do. And his parents will pay a nice bill.

I’m not sure what’s the mentality there regarding liability, but here, to involve a third party, they have to be more involved than just being used or worn by the perpretrators.

Anon C Howard says:

Can Techdirt actually justify the assertion that this guy is “an abusive jerk” or is “a terrible person”? I read nothing more than simple venting of every-day anger after suspicions of betrayal.

If you ask me, the fact that the ex-girlfriend W went to the univerity board to report on his private communications, likely to encourage this over-zealous punitive action to cause real harm, suggests that it is she who was vindictive and acting like a jerk. He has now suffered loosing a whole year of college as well as the stress of the legal proceedings.

Sadly I’m …80% certain that if the genders were reversed in this story, Techdirt would be again calling the male a jerk for having been the cheater.

I applaud an attitude to call out misogyny and denigrate those who revel in it but when you go too far and lose a sense of balance, you begin to turn off supporters of the cause.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

He held her hostage in a car against her will.
He violated her trust by going through her phone.
He demanded she continue to speak to her after she wanted to be let go.
I’m just sure he was completely even keeled during the period he held her hostage in the car after discovering her talking to another man.

His actions resulted in the real police/legal system taking actions to punish his behavior.

Pretty sure that covers abusive & a terrible person.

What you are missing is that even in light of people who would assume this case was horrible man keeps being horrible & school tries to protect her and fails… is that they went well over the top.

She was being vindictive and abusing the schools policies, and the school was more than willing to fall all over itself to protect someone who went out of her way to be offended. She decided 6 tweets were the worst thing ever, and the school decided that they needed to protect her because the system is stupid and currently terrified of ever being accused of not taking a female student seriously.

There are no real winners here. Except maybe her. She gets to be known only as W, while everyone is now well aware of the entire history of this case.

TL;DR – Taking someone hostage, gets you labeled a jerk.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The charges of “criminal restraint, battery and criminal deprivation of property” amount to hearsay. They are the word of the girl, and nothing more. When we agree that the girl is being vindictive, taking her words at face value is giving her credit that perhaps she doesn’t deserve.

I’m not saying these things didn’t happen. I’m sure to some extent they did, but it is inappropriate to portray a person as “an abusive jerk” without more facts.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

One can be an abusive jerk in a situation. I did not apply the label to the rest of his behavior in this situation.
He didn’t fight those claims, and he might not have for a wide variety of reasons… but that leaves the allegations unchallenged.

When this was first being talked about on Twitter, people were trying to portray it as something different until I found the original charges & then the expansion by the University.

What he allegedly did, makes him an abusive jerk in that situation.
What she did makes her a vindictive insane harpy, spurred on by a University who will take no notice of trampling the rights of another to protect her from butthurt.

Anonymous Coward says:

“You understand that she went and sought out these tweets.
She went out of her way to obtain access to see tweets she was no longer privy to, so she could be offended.
The tweets didn’t mention her by name, we not directed at her, and if not for her pursing them she would have been unaware of them.”

They had mutual friends. If he was venting to those friends, they would act differently to her like maybe not talk to her, tell her she is blowing things out of proportion, or that she is the problem. She will feel bullied and separated from her friends. Don’t think because she was no longer privy to the tweets that she was not affected by his actions.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

So if she said anything unkind about him in tweets she faced the same sort of punishment from the school?

Sometimes when friends breakup other relationships fall apart as well. If 6 tweets, from an angry ex, made them drop her as a freind perhaps they didn’t have that stable of a relationship.

You understand that they got him for violating a no-contact policy, and drew conclusions from tweets not mentioning her by name that he violated it by daring to talk to his friends. They ran him out of school over 6 tweets that possibly made her feel bad, not a campagin of terror in anyones eyes really.

If others changed their view of her because of these 6 tweets they weren’t exactly besties forever.

He was punished for her being butthurt, the court affirms.

AC720 (profile) says:

What a weird world we live in where you PAY to attend a school, and by so doing, apparently the school thinks it gains the right to control all aspects of your life and/or enforce rules as it wishes.

We’re paying them. We are the customer and they aren’t the Soup Nazi, so why are we all accepting this bull?

In NO other sort of business would the person who pays accept this kind of abuse and control and meddling from the business they are patronizing.

Unless you are hiring a dom. Then yes, you are paying to be abused.

The whole American education system needs to be gutted and rebuilt. It won’t be because those in power like it that way and because sheeple students just want to graduate and don’t want that paper held hostage.

Anonymous Coward says:

just to be clear this guy was in the clear if his account had been public.

That said the fact that this was pursued despite the fact that his account was private, suggests that this guy was not unreasonable to be venting on his private twitter account. Is he still a piece of shit very probably, but seeking redress for something someone says after a bad breakup to their friends and family is just all sorts of crazy.

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