Feminist Majority Foundation, et al. v. University of Mary Washington, et al., No. 3:17-cv-00344 (JAG) (E.D. Va.) September 19, 2017.
Students at Virginia’s University of Mary Washington filed a Title IX complaint against the school and its officials subsequent to the school’s refusal to inhibit the use of the now-defunct social media application Yik Yak, through which unpleasant and sometimes threatening messages were direct at the students concerning their pro-feminist on-campus activities.
The federal district court for the Eastern District of Virginia has dismissed the students’ claims. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination which impedes access to education: the court held that the university is not responsible under Title IX for matters not within its control, such as the independently owned and operated application Yik Yak. Title IX permits flexible remediation: a university need not accede to students’ particularized demands for relief, especially where accession could generate First Amendment exposure.
The court could find no retaliation against the students, as a letter explaining the school’s position could not be seen as such. Neither were the students successful in their Section 1983 claims against the school president individually, as no clearly established constitutional right could be shown. Moreover, action against the university president in his official capacity for an ongoing violation of federal law could not be sustained. There was no suggestion of ongoing violation and the suit was barred by the Eleventh Amendment.
Universities receiving federal funds and their administrators may yearn to breathe a sigh of relief at the outcome in this matter, yet it may be premature to assume that there exists insulation against liability for social media related claims. The exact parameters of the “no control” finding are not known, and it is likewise clear that schools themselves do participate in social media or make such fora available to students. Of equal importance is that not all speech and expression enjoys First Amendment protection, leaving those limits for testing at another time. While it is a boon to schools that the court reiterated that Title IX requires discrimination that is extreme and pervasive and interferes with obtaining an education, and that schools need not accede to students’ demands in offering relief, this case will likely not deter future claims to the extent schools might wish.
At this time it is not known whether there will be an appeal.