The University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) initially expelled a student for content on her personal social media accounts. Officials claimed that the nuclear pharmacy student, Kimberly Diei (’23), used speech that violated the university’s conduct policies, though Diei has claimed they never informed her of which specific policies she’d violated. Neither of her profiles or any of her content identified Diei as a UTHSC student or mentioned the school in any capacity. Only after Diei obtained legal help did the university reverse her expulsion.
Diei was investigated by the school’s Professional Conduct Committee on two separate occasions based on anonymous complaints. The first investigation occurred during Diei’s first month on campus in September 2019 regarding her Instagram and Twitter accounts in general. Following its review, the committee required Diei to write an apology letter. About a year later, Diei came under investigation again and was expelled for posting several explicit tweets referencing pop culture.
The Foundation for Individual Rights Education (FIRE) assisted Diei immediately by submitting a letter alleging that the university’s actions violated Diei’s rights to free speech and due process. This reportedly caused UTHSC to reverse the expulsion. However, Diei decided to continue forward with a lawsuit to protect her future social media posts and other students’ speech from the university. FIRE asserted that the university can’t govern student speech outside of school based on taste.
“It’s just a matter of time before they come back for another investigation into my expression on social media,” said Diei in a press release. “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.”
In statements issued to The Tennessee Star, FIRE attorney Greg Greubel clarified that this case wouldn’t address Diei’s right to be faced with her accuser. They also shared the extent to which universities should adhere to a student’s First Amendment protections.
“FIRE expects, and the First Amendment requires, that universities maintain policies that ordinary students can understand and follow,” stated Greubel. “UTHSC’s professionalism policies simply do not provide a basis for clear and consistent application, which leaves students like Diei in the untenable position of not knowing what conduct those policies prohibit.”
The University of Tennessee (UT) recently made headlines for another free speech issue. As The Star reported, a young woman is negotiating with UT after her cheer team opportunity was revoked and she was allegedly forced to withdraw from the Knoxville campus due to a three-year-old video of her saying a racial slur.
Diei filed the lawsuit last Wednesday. University spokespersons didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
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Corinne Murdock is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and the Star News Network. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Kimberly Diei” by VIA Productions and Breezy Lucia/FIRE.