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KU attorney spars with appeals court judge in Twitter expulsion case

A three-judge panel heard arguments in the university’s appeal of a November ruling in Douglas County that said the University of Kansas didn’t have the jurisdiction to expel Navid Yeasin over tweets aimed at his ex-girlfriend.
A three-judge panel heard arguments in the university’s appeal of a November ruling in Douglas County that said the University of Kansas didn’t have the jurisdiction to expel Navid Yeasin over tweets aimed at his ex-girlfriend. The Wichita Eagle

A Kansas Court of Appeals judge sparred with an attorney for the University of Kansas on Tuesday over whether the university’s decision to expel a student for offensive tweets violated his free speech rights.

A three-judge panel heard arguments in the university’s appeal of a November ruling in Douglas County that said the university didn’t have the jurisdiction to expel Navid Yeasin over tweets aimed at his ex-girlfriend.

The panel did not make a ruling Tuesday but said one would come as soon as possible.

Yeasin was expelled in November 2013 for violating an order not to contact the woman after the collapse of their relationship, which court documents say was “tumultuous and at times toxic.”

The university had warned Yeasin against harassing the woman, including making references to her on social media, which came after a series of incidents that included Yeasin allegedly detaining the woman in a car in Johnson County. When he tweeted demeaning messages that apparently targeted her without mentioning her by name, Yeasin was warned again but continued the behavior, the school said.

In his Douglas County suit, Yeasin argued that KU had violated his right to free speech and that neither the car incident nor his tweeting took place on school property.

The case has drawn attention from free speech groups and Kansas State University, which filed an amicus brief arguing that Yeasin’s tweets were off campus, so the University of Kansas was not required to sanction him.

Judge Stephen Hill’s interrogation began soon after KU’s attorney, Sara Trower, began speaking.

“Why isn’t that prior restraint of speech?” he asked. “You can’t talk about anybody, isn’t that right? Isn’t that what you’re saying?”

Trower responded that the school is saying “you can’t persist by retaliating and harassing her, seeking to alienate her.”

The university also argued that Yeasin’s action violated Title IX of federal law by creating a hostile educational environment for his ex-girlfriend. His off-campus actions created an on-campus hostile environment, Trower said.

Yeasin sat silently next to his attorney, Terence Leibold.

Leibold argued the university’s action represented an incredible expansion of its jurisdiction. Yeasin’s Twitter account was private and he had removed his ex-girlfriend as a follower, he said, and while Yeasin’s messages might have been offensive, they didn’t amount to threats.

“That’s what we have here: name-calling,” Leibold said.

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