Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Student Discplined for Off-Campus Conduct and Tweets Wins Appeal on Narrow Grounds

The Kansas Court of Appeals recently affirmed the decision of a lower court to dismiss a lawsuit by a student disciplined for sexual harassment and other offenseses, but in so doing, side-stepped the contentious questions about Title IX's applicability to off-campus conduct and its conflict with freedom of speech.

In 2013, the University of Kansas expelled Navid Yeasin for threatening and harassing a female classmate he had been dating, who is referred to in the case as "W."  Yeasin and W. had had an altercation off-campus over what Yeasin perceived as W's infidelity. Following this incident, Yeasin used Twitter to post what seem to be reasonably interpreted as harassing and threatening tweets directed at W. After a disciplinary hearing, Yeasin was expelled for the off-campus altercation as well as the tweets, the latter of which violated the University's no-contact order and were found by the hearing panel to constitute sexual harassment: unwelcome and sufficiently severe to have interfered with W's educational opportunities. 

Yeasin sued the university, arguing that the university did not have the authority under Title IX to discipline him for off-campus conduct or for constitutionally protected speech. The lower court, as well as the Court of Appeals, granted relief to Yeasin, but on narrow grounds.  The university's sexual harassment policy by its terms only applied to conduct that occurs on campus or at university-sponsored events.  For this reason, the university had no authority to expel Yeasin. The court did not reach the question of whether Title IX permits a university to discipline a student for off-campus conduct or whether Yeasin's tweets were protected by the First Amendment.

The take-away from this decision is therefore a narrow one: a university's authority to discipline a student for off-campus conduct starts with a clear and valid policy that asserts such jurisdiction.  If Title IX or the Constitution provide outer limits to a university's authority in this regard, those limits can only be tested in a case where a university disciplines a student for off-campus conduct in reliance on its clear and valid policy.

Decision: Yeasin v. University of Kansas, 2015 WL 561617 (Kan. Ct. App. Sept. 25, 2015).