Breaking News
Thursday, 9 February 2012

Should a Student be Disciplined for Being Disrespectful on Facebook?

In discussing ethics with medical students and physicians, it's common for someone to ask: "What does the law say?" I typically respond: "Let's first figure out what we think the right thing to do is. Then we can ask how to do it within the law. If the law says we can't do it, we should check to see if we got our reasoning right. If we still think we got it right, we can consider whether the law can be changed, or if civil disobedience is the path to follow."

On July 11, 2011, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled against Amanda Tatro in the fascinating case of Tatro v University of Minnesota. The decision is a heartening blend of law and ethics.

Amanda Beth Tatro was a student in the University of Minnesota mortuary-science program, which prepares students to become funeral directors or morticians. The laboratory courses use cadavers that have been donated to the university.

In November and early December 2009, Ms. Tatro posted the following on her Facebook page. I've added some notes in italics:

Amanda Beth Tatro: Gets to play, I mean dissect, Bernie[this is the name she gave to the cadaver. The name comes from the film "Weekend at Bernie's."] today. Lets see if I can have a lab void of reprimanding and having my scalpel taken away. Perhaps if I just hide it in my sleeve . . . .

Amanda Beth Tatro: Is looking forward to Monday‟s embalming therapy as well as a rumored opportunity to aspirate. Give me room, lots of aggression to be taken out with a trocar.
Amanda Beth Tatro: Who knew embalming lab was so cathartic! I still want to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar though.[Tatro testified at the Campus Committee on Student Behavior that she was referring to a man who had just broken up with her. But at the campus hearing, faculty members testified that they feared she was referring to them.] Hmm..perhaps I will spend the evening updating my “Death List #5” and making friends with the crematory guy. I do know the code . . . .

Amanda Beth Tatro: Realized with great sadness that my best friend, Bernie, will no longer be with me as of Friday next week. I wish to accompany him to the retort. Now where will I go or who will I hang with when I need to gather my sanity? Bye, bye Bernie. Lock of hair in my pocket.
On April 2, 2010, the Campus Committee on Student Behavior ruled that Tatro should receive a failing grade in the anatomy laboratory class, that she should enroll in a clinical ethics course, that she should write a letter to the mortuary-science faculty on the issue of respect in the profession, and that she should undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Tatro appealed to the court.

Here's the section of the court's decision most relevant to professional ethics:
The university found that Tatro violated rules 6 and 7 of the anatomy-laboratory course rules. Rule 7 states, “Conversational language of cadaver dissection outside the laboratory should be respectful and discreet. Blogging about the anatomy lab or the cadaver dissection is not allowable.” Tatro argues that the evidence does not support findings that she violated these laboratory rules.

..As the university asserts, public comments about “playing” with or taking “aggression” out on a cadaver are inconsistent with the notions of respect and dignity whether they occur in person, on Facebook, in a blog, or via other media.

I believe the court was entirely correct that the university had not violated Tatro's right to free speech. A core component of the profession she was preparing for is respectfulness and discretion. Whether or not the ostensible threats she made should have been taken so seriously (the court concluded that the university was correct to do so), her comments about "Bernie" violate the ethics of her profession. The academic penalty imposed by the Campus Committee on Student Behavior was appropriate. (I don't favor requiring a psychiatric evaluation unless there was a medical reason for doing so that the court record does not convey.)

In entering a profession we "profess" our commitment to the ethics of the profession. The first amendment gives Ms. Tatro the right to speak disrespectfully of "Bernie." But it doesn't give her the right to enter the funeral director profession at the same time!


Post a Comment

Toggle Footer