KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Doyle Byrnes has every intention of resuming her nursing studies after a federal judge overturned her dismissal from the program for posting a photo of a human placenta on Facebook.
The judge on Thursday shot down every argument, legal and otherwise, that Johnson County Community College had used to justify its ousting of Byrnes last fall, preventing her from graduating on schedule in May.
"It was a nice change," a smiling Byrnes said of the sweeping ruling. "Finally, someone reasonable is making the decision about my future."
It was a case about social media that in turn was fueled by the Internet to become talked about, even joked about, around the country, if not the world. The 22-year-old Byrnes had feared that her future career as a registered nurse and her potential earnings were threatened.
"I am concerned that my name is all over the Internet," Byrnes told U.S. District Judge Eric F. Melgren. "All you have to do is Google 'placenta.' "
Byrnes was one of five female students who posed for cell-phone pictures with a placenta while they were in a clinical course at an Olathe, Kan., medical center. Four of the students posted their photos on Facebook on Nov. 10 and were dismissed from the nursing school the next day for unprofessional behavior.
Byrnes was the only one who took the college to court, but her victory is good for the three others as well.
Terry Calaway, president of the Overland Park, Kan.-based college, said after the ruling that the college would not contest the issue any further.
"The court system is here to adjudicate issues such as this," Calaway said. "We're going to fully abide by the judge's decision, and we're going to reach out to all four students" who were dismissed.
In a statement later, Calaway said the college was disappointed by the ruling.
"The JCCC nursing program is widely known and respected for the quality of its instruction and its graduates," Calaway said. "Sensitivity to patients and confidentiality of patient care is at the heart of what we teach. We took what we believed to be appropriate action, but the court saw the situation differently."
Melgren issued an injunction ordering the college to allow Byrnes to make up the fall semester exam she missed and enroll in the spring semester that begins Jan. 19.
All four students who were dismissed testified Thursday and gave the same version of events on Nov. 10 while they were doing an obstetrics and gynecology course at the hospital. Some students had expressed a desire to examine a placenta, and instructor Amber Delphia arranged for that to happen. Afterward, student Chrystie North asked if she could photograph the specimen.
Delphia, who also testified, gave permission after requiring that anything that would identify the organ or the setting be removed from the photograph. Later still, while the students and instructor were in a locker room gathering their belongings, Delphia asked North if she was going to e-mail the photos to anyone.
All four students testified that North replied that she was going to post on Facebook. The students all said Delphia simply replied, "Oh, you girls."
The students said they merely wished to share their educational experience with friends and loved ones.
Delphia testified that she did not recall the discussion about Facebook. But Melgren ruled the important issue was that the students believed Delphia had given them consent.
Later that evening, Delphia contacted the students and told them to remove the postings, which they did. The next day they were summoned to the director of nursing, Jeanne Walsh, who dismissed them from the nursing program for disruptive and unprofessional behavior.
The college later said the students could reapply to the nursing program in the fall. But Byrnes is engaged to be married in August and planned to move to Virginia with her husband to work there as a registered nurse.
Clifford Cohen, Byrnes' attorney, argued his client was deprived by the college of due process and a disciplinary hearing. He also argued that Clarissa Craig, dean of the health and wellness program at JCCC, had publicly declared the students' actions unprofessional before considering Byrnes' appeal.
Melgren, who was impatient with counsel for both sides during Thursday's 3 1/2-hour hearing, did not listen to arguments after the testimony but issued his ruling directly from the bench. He found:
--Photos are taken to be viewed, and if the students were given permission to photograph the placenta, it became irrelevant what they did with the pictures.
--There was no violation of any patient's privacy because there was nothing in the photos to identify whose placenta it was.
--Byrnes was not allowed a fair hearing on her dismissal.
--There is nothing in the JCCC codes of conduct that clearly indicates Byrnes' action was a violation of them.
--The judgment of what is unprofessional is subjective. Melgren said he was not offended by the placenta photos.
Melgren acknowledged that the Facebook element of the case mystified him, but he said: "Today's generation of students is today's generation of students, and I don't know that what they did was disruptive. I think the college's reaction was disruptive."
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