FIRE to MSU: Do the Right Thing

By on February 23, 2007

Yesterday, FIRE sent Michigan State University (MSU) President Lou Anna K. Simon a follow-up letter concerning MSU’s blatantly unconstitutional Student Accountability in Community (SAC) program. In the letter, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff implores President Simon to recognize MSU’s obligations under the Constitution as a state actor and dismantle the SAC program, attaching a copy of his critical article in The Detroit News, which efficiently catalogues the program’s deficiencies under the Bill of Rights.
 
In addition to reiterating the core concerns FIRE has about the SAC program’s violations of students’ rights to free speech, freedom of conscience, and due process, Greg also takes issue with comments made by President Simon and Vice President for Student Affairs and Services Lee N. June in an article published in MSU’s student newspaper, The State News. Echoing concerns I raised earlier in this space, Greg writes:
While we remain hopeful that MSU will dismantle the SAC program without further action by FIRE, recent comments made to The State News by both you and Vice President June are distinctly unpromising and seem to demonstrate a misconception of both the SAC program and MSU’s constitutional responsibilities as an arm of the state. Specifically, you told The State News that FIRE’s concerns about the program’s constitutionality were without merit because:
 
“You don’t get into the program because you choose to; you’ve gotten there because you’ve been found guilty of something,” she said. “It’s sort of like when you go to an alcohol diversion program. You don’t have a First Amendment right to control the content of your alcohol diversion program.”
 
“You don’t have a set of rights to control what kinds of community service you do necessarily.”
 
These remarks are problematic for two reasons. First, it is unnerving to see you classify engaging in protected speech as an offense of which an MSU student could fairly “be found guilty.” Again, as a public university, MSU is legally and morally bound by the Constitution. Next, it is misleading to liken the SAC program to an “alcohol diversion program.” Alcohol consumption may be regulated and punished by MSU, but protected speech may not be. Further, even within the context of an alcohol diversion program, participants retain a right of private conscience; they could not be forced, for example, to declare that they believed in Prohibition. The SAC program is unconstitutional in part because it compels speech by punished students. 

In the State News article, June states that a conclusion to the internal university review of the SAC program is forthcoming. We at FIRE sincerely hope that MSU will realize the breadth and depth of its responsibilities as a state actor and end the SAC program’s many constitutional violations.

Schools: Michigan State University