No Discipline Despite Threats After Student Covertly Records Congressman

By on October 25, 2012

Today, writing for The Daily Caller, Eric Owens reports about a controversy at Concordia College in Minnesota. According to the article, Kate Engstrom, a 20-year-old student at the Lutheran-affiliated college, approached Congressman Collin Peterson (D-MN) after an event hosted by the College Democrats and secretly video-recorded the Congressman as he made some controversial remarks about the group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL). Engstrom then posted the clip on YouTube.

In the clip, you see a student ask to take a picture with Peterson, and you hear another student (most likely Engstrom) who is behind the camera say "Got it" implying it was a still shot, when really it was recording video. The student then goes on to ask Peterson about the impact of losing MCCL’s endorsement. Peterson explains that he doesn’t think it will have much impact on the campaign because MCCL is "a bunch of extremists." He goes on to say that by choosing not to endorse him, they are now entirely a partisan organization, which, in his view, marks "the end of them as an organization." (Of course, FIRE is a completely nonpartisan organization and we have no opinion whatsoever on MCCL’s views or on the pro-choice/pro-life debate.)

So why is this of interest to FIRE? Here’s why: Concordia President William Craft, upon learning of the episode, reportedly apologized to Congressman Peterson and told him that the Engstrom may even face discipline. When the Daily Caller later asked administration spokesman Roger Degerman exactly what rules or policies Engstrom had broken to justify any punishment, he was unable to point to a single policy. Instead he made a blanket statement that "[t]he college has a student code of conduct and set of policies … In general terms, students may receive disciplinary action if they are in violation of the conduct code and policies."

So that’s the bad news. 

Luckily, though, calmer heads appear to have prevailed. The Daily Caller reports that Engstrom was subsequently contacted by William MacDonald, Concordia College’s Director of Public Safety, who informed her that the college had decided not to take any disciplinary action. 

That’s certainly welcome news. However, it’s symptomatic of the view towards free speech in academia that the college president’s first instinct was to punish a student for publishing a statement about a matter of public concern made by a public figure while making a public appearance. That is deeply troubling, but it’s hardly unique to Concordia—the culture in academia generally seems to be one in which if a person or group has been annoyed or offended, concerns about liberty are to be ignored and the party who caused the offense must be punished. We’re glad that President Craft ultimately realized that punishing Engstrom was inappropriate, and he deserves to be commended for making the right decision—which, sadly, most administrators can’t be counted on to do. We’ll be sure to let you know if this story develops further.