A pharmacy grad student is suing the University of Tennesse after being expelled for allegedly posting “vulgar” photos.
Twenty-seven-year-old Kimberly Diei is suing the university for violating her freedom of speech and spying on her after they had already expelled her. In September, the college’s Health and Science Center expelled her after students anonymously complained about her photos on Instagram and Twitter after photos showed her wearing low-cut tops, sticking out her tongue, and reportedly writing raunchy rap lyrics inspired by Cardi–B.
The doctoral candidate is now fighting back with the help of her pro-bono lawyer, who, on Wednesday, filed a federal lawsuit, even though the college decided to reverse their decision to avoid court.
The University of Chicago graduate posts under the username kimmykasi and calls her post to her 19,500 Instagram followers and 2,000 Twitter followers “sex-positive,” which is intended to “empower” black women.
Diei told The New York Times that the case made her “sick to my stomach,” but she felt that “for no legitimate pedagogical reason,” the university had violated her First Amendment rights and that she was bringing the case forward to avoid potential students being targeted.
In an interview with legal website Fire.org, she said: “It’s just a matter of time before they come back for another investigation into my expression on social media. UT spied on my social media activity — activity that has no bearing on my success as a pharmacist or my education. I can be a successful and professional pharmacist as well as a strong woman that embraces her sexuality. The two are not mutually exclusive.”
The first time she was reported, Diei was ordered to write a “letter of reflection,” but the second time she received a letter claiming that her “conduct is a serious breach of the norms and expectations of the profession” and that one of her posts identifies her as a student at the college, which she denies.
Referencing the student handbook, the college said that the university staff “may monitor social networking sites on occasion, and egregious unprofessional postings could lead to disciplinary actions.” But it left her to extrapolate what was “egregious,” she said.
According to court documents, the disciplinary panel of the professional behavior committee of the school cited multiple instances found objectionable in Diei’s articles. Including “contributing to a famous trending discussion about the song ‘WAP‘ by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion by suggesting lyrics for a potential remix.”
“He’s not my pops, but I call him DAD’ because he’s nice in bed” (her wording was different) she says it was “well within the normal bounds of discussion on social media.”
Three weeks later, the pharmacy dean overruled her expulsion after a telephone conversation in which Diei said the dean asked her to try to block her accounts from people associated with the school and to reduce her association with the university, which she said was ‘hard for me to do when I have so many followers.’
She planned her posts for an audience of black women like herself, Diei said and hoped she could become famous enough to make money promoting goods. She said she used the word ‘kasi’ in her nickname, an Igbo word meaning ‘greatest,’ as a tribute to her Nigerian father: ‘I use words and phrases popular among our group.’
In the era of social media, colleges, and schools, Greg H. Greubel, Diei’s pro-bono lawyer, a staff attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he is trying to learn how and when to impose rules on the online lives of his students, with students saying that what they do off-campus is not significant.
He added, “It’s so hard to fit old First Amendment principles into the social media era. This is one of those areas of law that needs to evolve.”
Peter Lake, the director of Stetson University College of Law’s Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy, said that issues arise from the internet’s blurring of the distinctions between school and home life.
He said: ‘If someone is shouting in a classroom, you have the right to control the time, place, and manner. When they are shouting on Twitter, is it their space or yours?’
Mark Merritt, a former general counsel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said, “Universities don’t tend to be social media police in the sense that they’re out there actively monitoring social media. But it happens fairly frequently that things are brought to the attention of the administration.”