Kansas University Student’s Tweets Raise Free Speech Questions


Navid Yeasin, a Kansas University student, was expelled and banned from the campus in November of 2013 due to a series of social media posts concerning his ex-girlfriend. He has brought a lawsuit against the university with Terry Leibold, Yeasin's attorney, saying that the university could have taken other routes to provide a safe space for the alleged victim and believes the university is overstepping its authority by punishing Yeasin for off-campus conduct.

Caitlin Doornbos writes for Lawrence Journal-World that the university cited its Student Conduct Code, which clearly states that students can face disciplinary action for policy violations that take place "while on university premises or at university sponsored or supervised events." Yeasmin's demeaning social media posts took place while the two students were in Europe over spring break.

The case is now in the Kansas Court of Appeals where questions about how far KU's disciplinary powers can reach will be answered. KU's attorney, Sara L. Trower, says the university was providing a secure learning environment for its students, especially since the victim had filed a complaint with the school.

"The expulsion came from a violation of (university) code because of his ongoing conduct," Trower said. "The university's role is to mediate relationships between its students and provide a healthy and safe academic environment."

In July of 2014, Yeasin had another fight with his girlfriend after which she filed a report of the incident to police and KU's Institutional Opportunity and Access (IOA) department. The Johnson County police issued an Order of Protection from Abuse and KU issued a no-contact order to Yeasin and told him he was not to have "any physical, verbal, electronic or written communication with (his ex-girlfriend), her family, her friends or her associates."

But after the no-contact order, Yeasin took to Twitter again. IOA investigator Jennifer Brooks sent him a letter stating that any further contact or references to the woman "on any type of social media" outlet meant he could be expelled. However, Yeasin tweeted about the woman again and IOA did exactly what Brrooks had said the university would do.

Trower explained that Title IX, which bans sexual discrimination and harassment under any education or activity receiving federal funding allows the court to consider the context of the situation at hand.

"We were dealing with a hostile environment for the victim," Trower said. "In context of an abusive relationship, those comments take on a different meaning."

Still, Leibold continued to argue that KU did not have authority to punish Yeasin's behavior because it occurred outside of the university's jurisdiction. Kansas State University's attorney Maureen Redeker agreed in an amicus brief.

"(It would be) absurd and illogical to make universities the arbiters of all sexual or abusive conduct inflicted or suffered by students," Redeker wrote. "If universities were required to adjudicate and punish in this manner, universities would become de facto police departments with worldwide jurisdiction."

According to Associated Press, Yeasin's relationship with his ex-girlfriend was "tumultuous and at times toxic." Still, Yeasin argued that KU violated his right to free speech. Leibold added that Yeasin's Twitter account was private and he had blocked his ex-girlfriend from the account. While the statements he made may have been offensive, they did not, says Leibold, amount to threats.

Kansas City's KSHB-TV says the case could have a very real effect on student communication off campus.

"Where does a campus end in the virtual environment? You have to worry about how far it begins to extend in a virtual world," said UMKC law professor Daniel Weddle.

Weddle continued by saying that the implications were significant, and the problem is how far government agencies will reach into the private speech of individuals.

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