A Tweet With Consequences

It started when a student corrected his ex’s grammar and tweeted about it. Now he is suspended, and lawyers say First Amendment issues are at stake.

July 19, 2017
 

It started with an unrequested grammar lesson. It escalated to a tweet. It might end in court.

Nick Lutz was suspended for two semesters -- summer and the upcoming fall -- by the University of Central Florida, where he is a student, for posting a tweet about his ex-girlfriend, who had sent him a letter after their breakup. He tweeted pictures of the document with his notes correcting her grammar and writing -- missed indentations, "useless fillers," too short a conclusion, etc. Lutz gave the woman -- who is not a UCF student and whom he didn't name in the tweet -- a D-minus, and the tweet went viral.

In his suspension, according to documents provided by Lutz’s lawyer, Jacob Stuart, the university found Lutz responsible for “disruptive conduct” and “harmful behavior” as outlined in the student code of conduct.

Stuart has stepped in to aid Lutz in his appeal process, which is being handled by the university, but said that if the issue isn’t resolved, he’s prepared to take the case to court. At stake, Stuart said, are First Amendment violations, as well as due process rights.

“It creates a situation where you have universities trolling through their students’ posts,” Stuart said. “You shouldn’t have a bureaucracy essentially making moral decisions … I’m not saying Nick should or shouldn’t have done this, but that’s not UCF’s decision to make. That’s a dangerous, dangerous precedent.”

As far as the due process issue, the documents show that Lutz was originally found to have been found in violation “of university policy, specifically, violation of local, state and/or federal laws of the ‘Rules of Conduct.’” After his lawyer submitted an appeal, an updated document sent to Lutz said that he had been found responsible for the disruptive conduct and harmful behavior specifically, and dropping the reference to violations of the law.

“They changed the finding of what it was after we submitted the appeal,” Stuart said. An extension to file a new appeal was given, but Stuart said it amounted to changing the decision after the fact.

A spokeswoman for UCF said there had been an error in the original document but declined further comment, citing the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The woman had filed a cyberbullying report with the local sheriff’s office, but prosecutors decided to not pursue the claim.

Rules against bullying are among those UCF says Lutz violated, under the “harmful behavior” regulation. It’s defined as follows, according to the handbook:

“Behavior of any sort (including communicative behavior) directed at another, that is severe, pervasive or persistent, and is of a nature that would cause a reasonable person in the target’s position substantial emotional distress and undermine his or her ability to work, study or participate in university life or regular activities, or which would place a reasonable person in fear of injury or death.”

In addition to arguing for Lutz on First Amendment grounds, Stuart argues against the charge in his appeal by writing that Lutz never posted “the alleged victim’s last name, address, phone number, email or any form of username/identification that would allow someone to identify her.” Those who already knew whom Lutz was talking about would be familiar with the subject of his tweet, but to most of the 121,000 users who retweeted it, the subject was anonymous.

The case is also being reviewed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy group that aggressively challenges what it sees as First Amendment issues on college campuses.

“Mean speech about another person is not unprotected by the First Amendment,” said FIRE attorney Ari Cohn. “If it was a campaign of harassment where he called her house every night at two o’clock in the morning, then perhaps there would be a hat to hang those charges [in the original suspension] on. As it stands, he posted the letter once … in fact, the state’s attorney declined to prosecute the cyberbullying [charge].”

For Cohn, the punishment handed to Lutz was an overstep of its bounds, calling it “a classic FIRE case.”

“The alleged victim doesn’t even go to UCF, and what the student posted on Twitter was clearly protected speech,” he said. “Social media is the new frontier of student-speech controversy.”

Further questions raised include how much social media speech can be deemed relevant to the campus community and the university, since it doesn’t physically take place on campus. In this case, other party isn’t a student, making it even harder for UCF to prove a campus connection, Cohn said. Unless the situation makes it out of UCF’s internal process and into court, however, those questions will remain unanswered for the legal process and First Amendment lawyers at large.

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