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Facebook, a Placenta and a Lawsuit

January 3, 2011

By now most students have surely heard the warnings about what they post on their Facebook pages -- and how future employers or admissions committees might not be impressed with shots of drunken antics.

A lawsuit filed in federal court in Kansas last week may set off new alarm bells for some students -- and also raises the possibility that colleges may get in trouble for the way they react to postings of which they disapprove. The suit was filed by one of four nursing students kicked out of their program at Johnson County Community College over Facebook photographs taken of the students with a human placenta. While documents filed with the suit indicate that the college found the photographs to be inappropriate, the suit charges that the students' instructor knew of -- and did not discourage -- the posting of the photographs, and that the students were denied due process.

College officials said that they could not comment on all aspects of the suit until a court considers the case. But Mark A. Ferguson, legal counsel for the college, said that the instructor "denies having any knowledge that the nursing students intended to post any pictures on their Facebook pages. Allowing them to take a picture is far different than providing consent to publish these pictures on the web."

Terry Calaway, the college's president, issued a statement in which he defended the idea that students should be punished for posting the photographs online. "We regret that the students used such poor judgment to take such a unique educational opportunity that was presented in a private clinical setting and broadcast it on the Web. We teach our students to respect the confidentiality of patient care, which extends beyond the hospital room and includes situations when the nurse is not in the presence of the patient. The actions of the students showed not only poor judgment, but also lack of respect and a complete disregard for the ethical standards of the nursing profession." (For Inside Higher Ed blogger Eric Stoller's take on the controversy, go here.)

The suit, by Doyle Byrnes, one of the students who were kicked out, says that the dispute was set off by events on a trip in November to a medical center. There, Byrnes and six other students were taught by an instructor about the functions of the placenta, and were encouraged to touch and closely examine a placenta.

One student asked the instructor for permission for the students to take photographs of themselves with the placenta with the idea of putting the photos on their Facebook pages, the lawsuit says. The students said that they were excited about what they had learned that day and wanted to share their excitement with friends and family members -- via Facebook.

According to the suit, the instructor implied consent to this activity by saying that they needed to be sure that any photograph with the placenta did not have any identifying information about the woman from whom the placenta came (the photos in question did not), and by remarking "oh, you girls," about the idea of posting the photographs on Facebook.

Byrnes posted a photograph on her Facebook page, but a few hours later, when the instructor called to complain about it, she took it down -- after first asking the instructor if she was in trouble and being told that she was not, and she has since removed her Facebook account. (The Kansas City Star has published the photo.) According to the suit, she and the three other students who posted photographs were quickly expelled. (The college says that "expelled" is incorrect because they are permitted to apply to be readmitted to the program in August of 2011.) Byrnes was in good standing, and set to graduate in May; the suit says that she was never given an opportunity to present evidence on her behalf (such as the instructor's implied consent), and that her appeals were denied without any due process. The suit asks for her readmission and the opportunity to take the final exams for her fall courses -- permission for which she requested without succes after being expelled.

The suit says that because Byrnes is planning to move outside of the area after this spring, and could face difficulty getting into a new nursing program having been kicked out of the one at Johnson County, she faces a real hardship because of the way the college treated her. She is seeking an injunction ordering her readmission before classes start this semester.

According to college documents quoted in in the suit, Byrnes and the other students were expelled for issues of "demeanor and lack of professional behavior."

The president's statement said: "Because we cannot tolerate such unprofessional behavior in our students, we took what we believed to be appropriate action. The behaviors of the students were insensitive and disrespectful toward the mother and the human tissue involved. The fact that this story has so quickly gone viral is evidence itself of how damaging social media can be if not used appropriately."

 

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