College settles suit by suspended student

It’s a terrible idea to post offensive things on social media. For one thing, it could cost you your job. That’s because while First Amendment “freedom of speech” protections may shield you from being imprisoned or fined by the government, private companies are still free to decide they don’t want someone like you representing them.

It could also cost you friendships, because people might see your posts and decide they want nothing to do with you. It reflects badly on your judgment, and there may come a time where you look back at the things you’ve posted and cringe.

But what if you’re a student at a public university and your school seeks to punish you over your use of social media? That’s a more complicated situation, and a recent case from Virginia indicates that you might have some recourse.

In that case, “John Doe,” a freshman at Virginia Tech who lived in the dormitory where the first killings in the infamous April 2007 mass shooting took place, started a Facebook group chat discussing the shootings. Another participant changed his name and Doe’s name in the group chat to those of the shooters in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.

Doe changed his name back, but also changed the cover photo for the group chat to an internet meme showing a “Grim Reaper” video character superimposed over an image of the Columbine cafeteria with the caption, “Die! Die! Dieee!”

University officials saw a screenshot and ordered Doe to attend a student conduct hearing for allegedly violating the school code of conduct. A panel found him responsible and suspended him for the rest of the semester, banned him from student housing for a year and ordered him to attend counseling.

Doe sued Virginia Tech in federal court, claiming the disciplinary proceeding was flawed. Specifically, he argued that he only received four days’ notice of the hearing, was never told that he faced suspension and was denied a full opportunity to speak at the hearing. These amounted to violations of his rights to freedom of speech and due process, he claimed.

The case never made it to a jury because the university settled the claim. However, the fact that Virginia Tech settled suggests it believed Doe had a legitimate claim and feared the consequences of letting it go before a jury.

Despite the settlement that this student obtained, court cases can be complicated and dependent on the facts. A different student in a similar situation might not achieve the same result.