Judge dismisses case from KU student seeking $100K after being expelled for sexual harassment

Case highlights uncertainty about college students’ free-speech rights on social media

An aerial photo of Kansas University’s campus as it looks in August 2015.

A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit seeking monetary damages from a University of Kansas administrator, brought by a KU student who at one point was expelled over social media posts.

Experts say the ruling doesn’t answer the larger, muddier question of how far universities can go in disciplining students for things they post on social media. But it does send a message that individual university administrators can’t be forced to pay financial damages in such cases — partly because the online speech question is so unclear.

Navid Yeasin sued KU vice provost for student affairs Tammara Durham in November 2015 in Douglas County District Court, and the case moved to U.S. District Court in January. This month, federal Judge Julie Robinson dismissed it.

After spending more than two years expelled while battling his case in county and state courts, Yeasin is now re-enrolled at KU, according to the university’s directory.

Yeasin had argued that by expelling him, KU violated his First Amendment rights because his Twitter posts referencing an ex-girlfriend were protected speech, according to the federal suit. He also argued KU violated his right to due process. Yeasin asked for damages in excess of $100,000.

“As a result of KU’s wrongful expulsion of Yeasin, he has suffered damages in the form of delay in completing his education, lost employment and wages, emotional distress and mental anguish, attorney fees and litigation costs,” his suit said.

In dismissing the case, Robinson cited the qualified immunity doctrine, which protects government officials from liability for civil damages unless they violated the defendant’s “clearly established” constitutional rights.

“Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions,” Robinson wrote in her Dec. 1 dismissal. “To this end, qualified immunity shields government officials from liability.”


Robinson explains that students’ right to online speech is not clearly established under the law.

Neither the Supreme Court nor a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has considered whether universities can regulate off-campus, online speech by students, Robinson said.

She said another circuit court did address the matter in “Keefe v. Adams,” which involved Facebook posts by a nursing student at Central Lakes College in Minnesota. In that case, the court held that a college could expel a student for off-campus social media posts without violating his First Amendment rights when the speech was directed at classmates, involved conduct at the school and violated the Student Code of Conduct.

“However, this is a 2016 case,” Robinson said. “… The law in this area is constantly developing, and when (Yeasin) was expelled in 2013, it was even more unclear what standards applied.”

Title IX adds another twist.

Robinson said she was unaware of any case that undermines a university’s ability to take action against a student for making off-campus comments that implicate the student code, the university’s sexual harassment policy and the federal law known as Title IX.

“Even assuming that (Yeasin) had a First Amendment right to post the tweets, it was not objectively unreasonable for (Durham) to believe that the Student Code of Conduct extended her ability to discipline off-campus conduct that affected A.W. on campus,” Robinson said, using the female student’s initials. “During the course of the investigation and the formal hearing, A.W. admitted she was scared to be on campus.”


Title IX requires universities to investigate and adjudicate reports of sexual harassment, including sexual violence, on their campuses. By doing so, universities are supposed to ensure that a hostile environment does not prevent students from accessing their education.

Since Yeasin was expelled, KU’s Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities has been updated to say the university can discipline students for violations, including sexual harassment, that occur on campus or off. The code now defines KU’s jurisdiction as on university premises, at university sponsored events, off-campus if the behavior “affects the on-campus safety of a member of the university community” or when KU is required by law to address the behavior.

The code does not specifically address social media or online behavior.


This is what happened with Yeasin and KU, according to court documents from the federal case:

Yeasin was admitted to KU in fall 2010 to pursue a degree in petroleum engineering. He had a romantic relationship with another KU student that ended in summer 2013, following an incident in Johnson County that led to criminal charges and a protection order against him, in Johnson County courts.

Yeasin blocked her from seeing his Twitter posts, and over a period of four months proceeded to post about 14 tweets that referenced but did not name her.

When both students returned to campus in August 2013, the woman filed a sexual harassment complaint against Yeasin with KU’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access (IOA). The office ordered him to have no contact with her, and told him that included the social media comments.

In October 2013 the IOA determined that Yeasin had sexually harassed the woman — both in the Johnson County incident and through his tweets, which a friend showed to the woman. KU said the woman was “fearful for her safety on campus and wanted to stay inside her sorority house,” and ruled that Yeasin’s conduct was so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it interfered with her education.

In November 2013, following a hearing, KU expelled Yeasin for nonacademic misconduct and banned him from campus.

Yeasin then sued KU in county court, where a judge ruled in September 2014 that KU was wrong to expel him because administrators erroneously interpreted the student code — as written at the time — by applying it to off-campus conduct.

KU did not immediately let Yeasin re-enroll. Instead the university appealed to the Kansas Court of Appeals, which in September 2015 affirmed the lower court’s ruling.


In “Keefe v. Adams” and in Yeasin’s case, ACLU and other free-speech advocates have sided with students.

Doug Bonney, chief counsel and legal director for the ACLU Foundation of Kansas, wrote an amicus brief in Yeasin’s state case.

“It was an interpersonal dating issue, and the guy was a complete jerk,” Bonney said. “KU had no iron in that fire, and yet they reached out and disciplined him.”

Bonney was speaking recently with the Journal-World about Yeasin’s case and this semester’s campus hubbub over a Snapchat photo — which some called racist — featuring the text “Kkk go trump” over a photo of three KU cheerleaders in “K” sweaters. The involved cheerleaders were suspended from cheering and later resigned from the squad, though KU has not disclosed whether any action was taken against them at the university level.

“I don’t see how social media can ever create a hostile environment on a campus like KU’s, because you can elect not to look at it,” Bonney said. “It’s not like they put it on the bulletin board at Watson Library or put it on some sign at the union.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the national Student Press Law Center, bemoaned courts taking an “easy-way-out approach” to avoid answering difficult constitutional questions.

“The Yeasin case exemplifies the detriments of taking that off-ramp,” LoMonte wrote in a recent column about the case. “Qualified immunity applies where the case law is unsettled. The only way to settle a legal issue is to, you know, actually decide it. Postponing a decision on the merits means that the next generation of Navid Yeasins will be stuck with the same ‘law-is-unclear’ outcome a year — or a decade — from now.”