Appellate judges mull case of KU student expelled for violating university code with Twitter posts

? A case involving a Kansas University student who has been expelled over a series of demeaning social media posts directed at his ex-girlfriend has left the Kansas Court of Appeals trying to answer the question of just how far KU’s disciplinary powers can reach.

“What worries me most is the worldwide jurisdiction the university has to punish behavior,” said Terry Leibold, the attorney for Navid Yeasin, who was expelled and banned from the KU campus in November 2013 when he violated an order to not contact an ex-girlfriend by tweeting a series of derogatory comments about her.”Could they punish behavior between two students in Europe over spring break?”

Yeasin, who would have graduated from KU in May, filed a lawsuit against KU in early 2014 challenging his expulsion. In defense of the expulsion, KU had cited its Student Conduct Code, which states that students can be punished for policy violations that occur “while on university premises or at university sponsored or supervised events.” Douglas County District Judge Robert Fairchild last fall ruled that KU did not have jurisdiction to expel Yeasin because there was no evidence that the incidents that led to his expulsion occurred on campus.

KU appealed the ruling, and Yeasin remains expelled from the university while the appeal is being heard. The Kansas Court of Appeals on Tuesday heard oral arguments in the case, but issued no decision. A decision is expected later this summer.

KU’s attorney, Sara L. Trower, argued Tuesday that KU was acting according to its responsibility to provide a secure learning environment for its students, especially when a victim files a complaint with the university.

“The expulsion came from a violation of (university) code because of his ongoing conduct,” Trower said. “The university’s role is to mediate relationships between its students and provide a healthy and safe academic environment.”

Leibold, the attorney for Yeasin, said the university could have taken other measures to fulfill its duty to provide a safe learning environment and that KU did not have the authority to punish Yeasin for off-campus conduct.

‘Tumultuous relationship’

Court documents detail the “tumultuous and at times toxic” relationship between Yeasin and another KU student over the 2013-2014 school year that led to Yeasin’s expulsion.

On July 1, 2014, Yeasin was charged in Johnson County with criminal restraint, battery and criminal deprivation of property after allegedly refusing to let his ex-girlfriend out of his car and taking her phone during a fight in Olathe. After the fight, the woman reported the incident to police and, that fall, to KU’s Institutional Opportunity and Access department.

Yeasin consented to an Order of Protection from Abuse in Johnson County, which banned him from directly or indirectly contacting his ex-girlfriend. IOA also placed a no-contact order on him and told him he was prohibited from “any physical, verbal, electronic or written communication with (his ex-girlfriend), her family, her friends or her associates.”

Yeasin took to Twitter after receiving the letter, an action he would later justify as “venting,” Trower said. Though not specifically mentioning his ex-girlfriend’s name and having blocked her from seeing his private Twitter account, Yeasin made a series of derogatory posts referring to her as a “psycho,” using expletives and mocking her appearance.

Trower said that though the victim was blocked, her friends showed her the tweets. The messages were brought to the attention of KU again, and IOA investigator Jennifer Brooks sent a letter informing Yeasin that if he continued to reference the woman “on any type of social media” outlet, he could be expelled.

“I am writing to you to clarify that any reference made on social media regarding (her), even if the communication is not sent to her or states her name specifically, it is a violation of the no-contact order,” Brooks said.

Trower said that the victim suffered from the ongoing tweets and “could not leave her sorority house alone” for fear of confrontation by Yeasin. Trower said that several of Yeasin’s friends laughed at her that semester, upsetting her, and another of Yeasin’s friends allegedly asked the woman to leave a fraternity party.

That warning did not stop Yeasin, who again tweeted about the woman. When IOA found out about the new violation, it held a hearing in November 2013 and expelled and banned Yeasin from the KU campus.

A jurisdiction question

Trower argued that this case is one of “conduct, context and compliance,” and Yeasin was not necessarily expelled solely because of the tweets in question. She said that in reviewing the case under Title IX, which bans sexual discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal funding, allows the court to consider the context of the situation at hand.

“We were dealing with a hostile environment for the victim,” Trower said. “In context of an abusive relationship, those comments take on a different meaning.”

Leibold argued, however, that KU did not have the authority to punish behavior that occurs outside of the university’s campus. No evidence was provided that proves Yeasin tweeted from university grounds or at university-sponsored events.

Leibold said the university’s code was limited to actions on campus or at university-sponsored events. He also said that Title IX “doesn’t request (that universities) do anything about off-campus conduct.”

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case, Kansas State University agreed. K-State’s attorney, Maureen Redeker, wrote that the case boils down to the fact that “Title IX’s plain language leaves no room to expand Title IX’s jurisdiction to include harassing conduct not within a school’s substantial control.”

“(It would be) absurd and illogical to make universities the arbiters of all sexual or abusive conduct inflicted or suffered by students,” Redeker wrote. “If universities were required to adjudicate and punish in this manner, universities would become de facto police departments with worldwide jurisdiction.”

In response to K-State, Trower wrote that once the university receives a complaint of sexual assault, it must take action to respond to that complaint to comply with Title IX. Trower said that the university “responded by initiating an investigation and then took appropriate remedial action.”

“The fact that KSU claims it would not have acted as did KU proves nothing but that KSU has a greater risk to tolerance for sexual harassment of its students and gambling with potential (Department of Education) scrutiny for violating Title IX,” Trower said.

Leibold said that while KU does have the responsibility “to take steps to stop harassment,” the school “didn’t really take steps” such as “offering counseling or escorting her between classes,” instead expelling Yeasin “because it was easy.”

First Amendment issue?

Leibold also said that he felt KU’s second order banning Yeasin from talking about the woman at all is a violation of the First Amendment.

“What we have is name-calling,” Leibold said. “The Supreme Court said offensive language is protected and she has the responsibility to protect her sensibilities and avert her eyes.”

Along with asking the appellate court to affirm Fairchild’s ruling that Yeasin’s expulsion should be reversed, he also asked the court to remove a stay on Fairchild’s order, placed at the request of KU during the appeal process. Under the stay, Yeasin remains expelled from KU until the appeals process is complete.

“He’s been suspended for four semesters, based on a wrongful expulsion (according to Fairchild),” Leibold said. “He would have graduated spring of this year; he would be out making money. Instead he’s a part-time employee waiting on this appeal.”

Trower said KU opposed lifting the stay. Leibold said even if the appellate court rules in his favor, if the stay is not lifted, KU could appeal the decision again and further prevent Yeasin’s enrollment.