10th Circuit Ruling Deals Huge Blow to Freedom of Speech Rights

In an amazing decision, a court ruled that a student could be expelled from school for his off-campus tweets.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the University of Kansas did not violate the First Amendment rights of student Navid Yeasin when they kicked him out of school for tweeting nasty things about his ex-girlfriend.

Complaining that his First Amendment rights were being violated, Yeasin was successful in getting the expulsion overturned in state court.

The student then turned around and sued the KU administrator for expelling him.

He lost that case at the District court level, then appealed to the Tenth Circuit, which upheld the lower court’s dismissal.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has been representing Yeasin since the beginning. Here’s how they put it:

The court ratified the administrator’s defense of qualified immunity — a legal doctrine shielding government officials from liability unless the plaintiff proves: 1) the official violated his statutory or constitutional rights, and 2) that right was clearly established at the time of the violation.

The decision hinged on the second prong, which required the court to determine whether the KU administrator violated clearly established law by expelling Yeasin for his off-campus tweets. The court began by discussing several Supreme Court cases ruling that the First Amendment applies in full force at state universities. Since these decisions involved different circumstances than Yeasin’s case — mostly because they were decided decades before Twitter existed — the court reasoned that the law here is undecided, holding that “[a]t the intersection of university speech and social media, First Amendment doctrine is unsettled.” Thus, the KU administrator was protected by qualified immunity.

FIRE argues that the court’s logic is faulty, and that the ruling allows administrators to violate students’ free speech rights with impunity.

Instead of properly denying qualified immunity to “the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,” the court paves the way for more college administrators to escape liability for flagrant First Amendment transgressions.

The First Amendment, FIRE argues, forbids schools for punishing students for their off-campus social media comments.

In 2015, the school found Yeasin guilty of sexually harassing his ex-girlfriend, also a KU student, in violation of KU’s student code of conduct. The evidence supporting the expulsion included an off-campus encounter between the then-couple over a summer break and a number of vulgar, mean-spirited tweets Yeasin authored about his ex.

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. He was expelled when he violated that order.

The district court reversed the expulsion, ruling that KU presented no evidence that the alleged conduct code violation took place on campus or at a university-sponsored event, and that the code, as written, did not apply to off-campus conduct.