A University of Central Florida student, Nick Lutz, who fought the school's decision to suspend him after he tweeted an image of an apology letter from his ex-girlfriend, has had his suspension lifted.
In a letter from the UCF’s Office of the Vice President and Dean of Students, tweeted by Lutz’s lawyer Wednesday evening, administrators stated that while “the reported victim — a high school student with plans to attend UCF in the future — experienced substantial emotional distress… I cannot conclude that her distress is due to your original posting rather than the subsequent attention your posting drew.”
The office passed the case to the Office of Student Conduct for a hearing with new charges, “if appropriate charges are identified,” and revoked the current sanctions against Lutz.
Lutz's tweet about his ex-girlfriend — in which he annotated and graded a hand-written letter she left him — went viral in February, getting more than 120,000 retweets. The university later said the tweet violated the rules of its handbook prohibiting bullying.
Lutz appealed the disciplinary action on free speech grounds, he said in a Facebook post on Tuesday. "I am sharing this story to alert everyone, including the 60k+ students of UCF, that our school is deciding what posts they like and dislike," he wrote. "We should all be scared and stand-up to this type of action." The Chronicle of Higher Education first reported the appeal.
"In student conduct cases where there is significant public attention, UCF has the option to ask the student involved to waive their FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] rights so a more clear picture can emerge. If the student declines to waive those rights, the university is unable to discuss the case," the university told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday.
According to the documents posted on Facebook by Lutz, the university found him responsible for “disruptive conduct” and “harmful behavior” as outlined in the student code of conduct, which prohibits “behavior of any sort (including communicative behavior) directed at another, that is severe, pervasive or persistent, and is of a nature that would cause a reasonable person in the target’s position substantial emotional distress" or "undermine his or her ability to work, study or participate in university life or regular activities" or "which would place a reasonable person in fear of injury or death.”
In a letter to the university, Lutz's lawyer, Jacob Stuart, called the suspension a “dangerous precedent” and said Lutz was appealing the decision. Stuart argued that the disciplinary action violated Lutz's First Amendment rights.
UCF spokesperson Courtney Gilmartin told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that the appeal was still under consideration. "It’s important to understand that the process in this case may yet not be complete,” she said.
Ari Cohn, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy group that supported Lutz, said that because the letter was written by someone who was not a student, it makes it more difficult for UCF to claim the tweet is relevant to the school community.
"Is it really the university’s business to police student speech no matter where it’s made?" said Cohn.
The woman addressed in the letter, who is not named, also filed a cyberbullying complaint with the Volusia County Sheriff's Office.
"Based on statements made and evidence observed, Deputy [Kendra] Shields determined no crime had been committed," reads the incident report, obtained by BuzzFeed News. "Deputy Shields observed no threats or derogatory language in the corrections [to the letter]; however, [the letter writer - name redacted] advised that other twitter account holders made comments on the post that caused her 'substantial emotional distress.'"
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Twitter for comment.
In an interview with local TV station WFTV 9, Lutz said his intent was not to expose the woman, and that the tweet started as a joke, which people found "hilarious" and "relatable."
The tweet remains pinned to the top of his Twitter feed as of Thursday.
Cora Lewis is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Lewis reports on labor.
Contact Cora Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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