Kimberly Diei, a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, has filed a lawsuit against the school after she was expelled from her doctoral program for allegedly posting vulgar social media content.
The post in question involves a photo of the student wearing low-cut tops, sticking her tongue out and writing rap lyrics inspired by Cardi B. Identifying herself as kimmykasi on social media, the graduate student described her posts as “sex-positive” and intended to empower Black women.
But the college imposed the punishment after a professional conduct committee, composed of nine faculty members and three students, determined the posts to be too vulgar.
After facing expulsion, Diei retained a pro-bono lawyer and filed a lawsuit on Wednesday. The 27-year-old said administrators appear to be making up the rules as they go and imposing their personal tastes to make broad judgments about student behavior.
“UT spied on my social media activity — activity that has no bearing on my success as a pharmacist or my education,” the pharmacy student said in a statement. “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 student’s lawyer, Greg H. Greubel, said institutions need to adjust to the era of social media.
“It’s so hard to fit old First Amendment principles into the social media era,” Greubel said. “This is one of those areas of law that needs to evolve.”
In September 2019, the school received another complaint about the student’s social media behavior, identifying her posts as a violation of the institution’s professionalism code. During the first incident, Diei was ordered to write a letter of reflection.
She received a letter on Sept. 2 which described her conduct as “a serious breach of the norms and expectations of the profession.”
The letter stated the university staff “may monitor social networking sites on occasion and egregious unprofessional postings could lead to disciplinary actions.”
According to the student’s legal team, administrators initially didn’t provide details about the alleged violations in the incident, but they approved the expulsion four days after sending the letter.
Diei found some relief when a pharmacy dean overruled her expulsion three weeks later. But she remains confused about what is considered egregious.
“It’s just a matter of time before they come back for another investigation into my expression on social media,” she said.
The young scientist graduated from the University of Chicago in 2015 as a biology major. She then taught physics in a charter school. Her goal is to specialize in nuclear pharmacy, handling radioactive materials.
In another case involving freedom of speech on social media, a high school cheerleader in Pennsylvania was removed from the junior varsity squad last year after she posted vulgar complaints about not making the varsity team. The cheerleader was accused of sending an image to 250 Snapchat friends of herself and a friend raising their middle fingers, along with text cursing “school,” “softball,” “cheer” and “everything.” But the student was reinstated after he winning her lawsuit.
The University of Missouri also expelled a student for reprinting an offensive cartoon and a vulgar headline in an underground newspaper.