Michigan State’s Free Speech Problems Not Going Away

By on April 1, 2010

Yesterday, Michigan State University (MSU) student publication The Big Green published an excellent article about MSU’s shameful place on FIRE’s Red Alert list. The six schools on this list have displayed a severe and ongoing disregard for the fundamental rights of their students or faculty members and are the "worst of the worst" when it comes to liberty on campus. Students should think twice before attending MSU or the other five schools on the list: Colorado College, Brandeis University, Tufts University, Johns Hopkins University, and Bucknell University.

Julie Mianecki’s article in The Big Green explains why MSU is on the list:

In September of 2008, Spencer sent out an email to 391 faculty members criticizing the proposed changes to fall semester and Fall Welcome. The international relations senior thought she was just doing her job as a member of student government. The MSU administration saw it differently – it charged her with violating an anti-spamming regulation and Spencer found herself facing possible suspension from the university.

"I wasn’t even using my MSU email. It was my private email and I emailed from home," Spencer said. "The argument that the university made was that the email that I sent still had to travel through their network to reach faculty and staff, but that’s a pretty thin argument."

She added that students often get emails from sites such as ANGEL that should theoretically violate the same regulation, which states that MSU has the ability to control bulk email. 

Then, after MSU backed down from punishing Spencer, it made its "spam" policy even stricter: 

Bulk email is [now] defined as "the transmission of an identical or substantially identical e-mail message within a 48-hour period from an internal user to more than 10 other internal users who have not elected to receive such e-mail."

Both FIRE and Spencer considered the restriction on her emailing abilities a violation of freedom of speech. A public university’s prerogative to restrict first amendment rights of students has been debated in the courts over the years. In general, as a public institution, a university cannot make any rule restricting first amendment rights that is more strict than the government itself would be allowed to make.

Indeed, if something important happens on campus or nearby and you want to get the word out to a bunch of people fast, MSU has prohibited you from using e-mail to do so. Or if you’re like Kara Spencer and you want to make sure a lot of faculty members are aware of an imminent administrative decision that will substantially affect them, e-mail is essentially off-limits. While almost nobody likes "spam," MSU has thwarted an importantsometimes the onlymeans of getting a message out in an effective, timely way to a targeted audience.

As Mianecki reports,

"I think there’s still a good argument to be made that the current policy is unconstitutional," [Spencer] said. "Trying to regulate how people have contact with one another is wrong."

Mianecki also reports on an allegation of unequal treatment of students who bring speakers to campus:

As the founder and president of [student organization] Sons of Liberty, [student Jordan Zammit] said he ran into obstacles when trying to organize a recent speaking engagement. Controversial British politician Nick Griffin was scheduled to speak at MSU on February 18 about "how the fraud of man-made global warming is used by liberals to attack the sovereignty of nation-states," according to a press release issued by Zammit. The event was cancelled because of circumstances unrelated to MSU, but Zammit said the university’s administration was not only unhelpful but obstructive during the planning process for the engagement.

"They purposefully tried to prevent my organization from hosting a prominent politician," Zammit said. "They did this by not answering my phone calls and by not responding to my emails, by denying us free police protection even though protesters have a history of directing violence towards people at events, and by trying to get us to commit to paying for damage done to the room by violent protesters."

Mianecki concludes:

For now, the university awaits its FIRE allegations to die out and Spencer’s continuing concerns to be addressed. Hopefully, the next time MSU earns a spot on a nationally recognized list, it will be as the best of the best rather than the worst of the worst.

Of course, FIRE will make sure the story of MSU’s censorship will not "die out." Indeed, if MSU wants to revive its reputation as a true marketplace of ideas, let us recommend FIRE’s short handbook for administrators, Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies. Thanks to Ms. Mianecki for a thoughtful article.

Schools: Michigan State University