The University of Kansas must reinstate a student it expelled for sending offensive tweets about a former girlfriend while he was not on campus, the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
Navid Yeasin, a senior, was expelled in 2013 after posting the tweets, which the university said violated an order it had issued prohibiting him from having any contact, including electronic or written communication, with the woman.
Court documents called the couple's relationship "tumultuous and at times toxic," and the woman alleged Yeasin had held her in a car against her will while insulting her because she wanted to break up. The university said he sent derogatory tweets after being warned to leave her alone.
Yeasin argued in a lawsuit filed in Douglas County that the university violated his right to free speech and that neither the car incident nor his tweeting took place on school property. A Douglas County judge ruled last year that the school must re-enroll Yeasin but issued a stay pending the appeals court ruling.
The three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld the lower court ruling Friday but did not answer the question of whether social media communication is constitutionally protected free speech, The Lawrence Journal-World reported. Instead, the panel based its ruling on the university's student code of conduct.
"The trouble is, the Student Code did not give the University authority to act when the misconduct occurred somewhere other than its campus or at University sponsored or supervised events," Judge Stephen Hill wrote for the panel. "There is no proof in the record that Yeasin posted the tweets while he was on campus."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, the Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education all filed court briefs supporting Yeasin's arguments. Kansas State University filed a brief arguing that the University of Kansas was not required to discipline Yeasin because he was off-campus when he sent the tweets.
University attorneys argued Yeasin's actions created a hostile environment on campus for the woman, which would violate Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which required it to extend its Student Code to off-campus activities.
The court rejected that argument, saying it was "obvious" the only environment the university can control is on campus or at university-sponsored events.
"After all, the University is not an agency of law enforcement but is rather an institution of learning," the court said.
ACLU attorney Doug Bonney said he believed the university was addressing its concern about Title IX in the wrong way.
"To police stuff that doesn't have any connection with the university is a waste of resources," he said. "And to police speech -- no matter how (offensive) that speech is -- is a waste of resources. KU needs to focus on real sexual assault on campus."
The university did not immediately respond to a request from The Associated Press for reaction to the court's ruling.