Well, I didn’t think another Elijah Lovejoy Alert would come up quite so quickly, but I learned about this case just last night.
Kimberly Diei is a pharmacy student at the University of Tennessee in Memphis. She was recently threatened with being expelled from her pharmacy program because administrators at UT received anonymous complaints about her sexually vulgar social media posts. I haven’t seen Ms. Diei’s posts, but the description of them in newspapers I’ve read lead me to believe that the posts were genuinely sexually vulgar. But, of course, that’s not the point. The point is, is Ms. Diei free to express herself, even in a sexually vulgar way, free of her university’s power to punish her for exercising speech that is Constitutionally protected? No one is suggesting that Ms. Diei threatened anyone with violence or harassed anyone in her posts. UT insists that in one of her posts, she is identifiable as a student in their pharmacy programs, but Ms. Diei and FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, dispute that. According to FIRE, UT has not even been specific in informing her of which policies Ms. Diei violated, other than “a vague claim that her posts violated ‘various professionalism codes.'”
The decision to expel Ms. Diei from the pharmacy program at UT has been reversed. But, she has filed a federal lawsuit. “So, I wanted to send a clear message,” Ms. Diei says, “Don’t mess with me and don’t do this again to anyone else.” According to FIRE, “The lawsuit aims to stop UT from further investigations into Diei’s social media, eliminate the college’s overbroad professionalism policies, and win damages for Diei over the college interfering with her First Amendment and due process rights.”
There are some problems with this case. First, it smacks of Orwell that the complaint was anonymous and remains so. Ms. Diei does not get to confront her accuser. Second, UT has refused to be specific in which policies Ms. Diei violated. Third, it’s pretty clear that Ms. Diei’s posts were posted on her own time and off campus. Does UT get to manage an individual’s life even on his or her own time and in his or her own home?
It is an important question to ask: When does a person associated with an institution, any institution, cease to represent that institution in the context of their personal lives? Yes, Ms. Diei is a student in the pharmacy program at the University of Tennessee. But, she is not only a student in the pharmacy program at the University of Tennessee. She is also an adult individual, a member of a family, a member of a social group, likely active in a vast array of other relationships. Does she never get to say, “At this moment in my life, I am not representing the UT pharmacy program.”?
You don’t have to like what Ms. Diei posted. If I saw the posts, I likely wouldn’t like them. But, the principle of free speech does not protect only speech you like, or I like, or UT likes, or the government likes. The Constitution either protects speech that is likely offensive to many people, even most people, or it protects no speech at all.
FIRE is an organization that fights for the rights of those employed by or students in higher education. You can visit their website here.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.