Michigan State Again Misrepresents ‘Spam’ Policy in Response to FIRE

By December 19, 2008

Michigan State University (MSU) strangely persists in misrepresenting its anti-spam policy, an unconstitutional policy that it has used to punish a student government leader for e-mailing a small percentage of faculty members about significant pending changes to MSU’s academic calendar. MSU declared junior Kara Spencer a spammer for engaging in her rights as a citizen and a member of the MSU community, applying a policy that entirely prohibits anyone on campus from sending "personal" or "political" e-mail to more than about 20–30 recipients without prior approval from the recipients. Only certain kinds of communications (those that are not "personal" or "political" or which are "advertising or solicitations") can be sent to more than about 20–30 recipients without their approvalbut even these communications are subject to prior administrative approval.

Nevertheless, MSU continues to call this policy "content neutral" in form letters from the president’s officenumerous concerned MSU alumni and other citizens have been sending us the form letter. Moreover, MSU’s formal response to FIRE’s November 26 letter to MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon again calls the policy "content/viewpoint neutral," in plain contradiction of the facts.

The undated response letter we received today from Lee N. June, MSU’s Vice President for Student Affair [sic] and Services, was postmarked December 16, so I suppose he can be excused for not knowing about the open letter signed by thirteen civil liberties organizations nationwide on the 17th. All thirteen organizations agree that the policy is plainly not content neutral, that the policy is unconstitutional, and that the finding of guilt against Spencer should be overturned. Greg has written about this remarkable national coalition, which involves groups left, right, and center, on The Huffington Post today.

To make matters even worse, MSU apparently is claiming that members of its community simply don’t have the time and interest for matters such as the one Spencer introduced to 391 faculty members. June’s letter states:

The University’s regulations restricting the posting of unwanted spam email on its network are not only reasonable and content/viewpoint neutral, but they are necessary to safeguard the time and interests of those pursuing excellence across the University’s mission of instruction, research, and service outreach.

Does any reasonable person at MSU believe that changes to the campus calendar were not within the interests of the university’s faculty? Besides, MSU should not be in the business of deciding for its own faculty what their interests ought to be. Banning unsolicited commercial advertisements (one thing everyone agrees is spam) is one thing; banning "personal" and "political" speech in order to shield faculty members from hearing from a student government leader is something else altogether.

The more likely explanation for MSU’s persistence in prosecuting Spencer in this caseremember, President Simon could step in any time and end this violation of Spencer’s rightsis that Spencer was challenging the administration on a policy change that the administration seemed to be pushing through without much time for discussion.

Michigan State University is on FIRE’s select Red Alert list as one of the worst of the worst schools when it comes to the fundamental rights of students on campus. By persisting in defending its unconstitutional policy, MSU clearly deserves to stay on the list.

To let President Simon know what you think, send her an unsolicited e-mail at presmail@msu.edu or phone her at 517-355-6560. Lee June can be reached at leejune@msu.edu or 517-355-2264.

Schools: Michigan State University Cases: Michigan State University: Student Government Official Threatened with Suspension for E-mailing Faculty about University Scheduling Concerns