I’m not sure I understand the reasoning here, or the order of events.
Did these screen shots come into possession of others BEFORE disciplinary action was instituted? Or after? If after, were they leaked by someone whose responsibility it was to keep such information private?
I’m not sure I understand what business it is of the University to be policing private group chats. This isn’t happening in public, it’s not as though other students are hearing these statements. These aren’t genuine threats, as far as I can tell from what it says, so it’s not a safety issue.
What business or interest does a university, which is a semi-public body, have in regulating my private life? Do I not have a privacy right even against my university? Should I let them into my bedroom while I’m at it? These messages were sent in a private chat, between consensual participants, as far I can tell.
Further, a university would surely be either a public authority or hybrid public authority under the Human Rights Act and, as such, must respect HRA ECHR rights, including Article 8 private life and Article 10 freedom of speech.
I see no reason to regulate mere offensiveness. As Notoriety
said, it doesn’t seem to make a material difference if it was 1 joke or 100. If I repeated the same tasteless joke 100 times, it doesn’t seem to be the case that mere repetition ought or would incur liability, because it’s the content of a statement that is liable to incur punishment, not its mere repetition (excluding things like harassment claims, where content and repetition would be relevant).
As far as I can tell, the only justification the university has for punishing these students would be something like “bringing disrepute” on the university. But, depending on the order of events as I mentioned above, it could be the case that the investigation or punishment brought about the leak of information — in which case, but for the university’s unnecessary intervention, such disrepute wouldn’t have occurred because the information wouldn’t have been made public.