Red Alert at Michigan State: Time to Set Things Right

By September 1, 2010

FIRE’s full-page ad in U.S. News & World Report‘s college rankings issue exposes the colleges and universities that are the "worst of the worst" when it comes to individual rights. At these schools it is downright dangerous for students to express themselves without fear of censorship or punishment. By placing these schools on our Red Alert list, FIRE warns prospective students and faculty members to think twice before attending.

Bucknell University and Michigan State University are the two newest schools to receive this dishonorable distinction, having joined longtime members Brandeis UniversityColorado CollegeJohns Hopkins University, and Tufts University. For the next few days here on The Torch, we’ll be examining each of our Red Alert schools in turn and explaining what they’ve done wrong and how they can fix it. Today, we start with Michigan State.

Here’s why people should think twice about applying to Michigan State University (MSU) and what MSU should do about it.

In late 2008, MSU revealed plans to shorten the school’s academic calendar and freshman orientation schedule. There was very little time to give input, but MSU’s University Committee on Student Affairs (UCSA) quickly met and constructed a response letter. UCSA included faculty, students, and administrators. Kara Spencer was both a UCSA member and Association Director of the student government. She told UCSA that she would send individual faculty her own version of its letter. Nobody objected. She carefully selected 391 faculty members (about 8 percent of the faculty of Michigan State) who she thought would be most interested and able to add their voices, and the e-mails went out.

Within two days, MSU Network Administrator Randall J. Hall summoned Spencer to a mandatory "investigation" meeting. Hall alleged that Spencer had violated as many as five MSU policies by "spamming" the faculty members. Despite the fact that her e-mail was timely, carefully targeted, and concerned a campus issue, Spencer was found responsible for "spamming." A formal warning was placed in Spencer’s file, hurting her chances of obtaining employment or attending graduate school.

In response, 13 civil liberties organizations, led by FIRE and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), wrote an open letter to MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, challenging both the policy and its application against Spencer. In response to the letter, public pressure, and an appeal filed by Spencer, the university announced that the charges had been "withdrawn."

Then, something even worse happened: MSU changed its spam policy to make it much more restrictive than before. As a result, an e-mail alert like Spencer’s would be even more likely to be punished. Now, students and faculty members cannot e-mail more than 10 recipients unannounced to ask them to weigh in on an urgent campus issue.

Perhaps worst of all, the new policy bans expressing personal opinions in a way that has no hope but to be enforced selectively:

The University’s e-mail services are not intended as a forum for the expression of personal opinions. Other means exist in the University community for the expression and dissemination of personal opinions on matters of interest within the University community. Rather, the University’s e-mail services are provided to support the University’s instructional, public service, research, and administrative objectives.

What? You’re confused? You must be confusing MSU with a free marketplace of ideas. No, nobody around here is expecting to get an e-mail asking them to think about something important.

MSU has completely redefined what virtually every college student is allowed to do with his or her e-mail account. If I were a leader of a campus organization in any way involved in activism or campus issues, I would find this new policy outrageous. Next thing you know, MSU will say that you can’t use MSU’s Internet connections to contact more than 10 people unannounced on Facebook. After all, the university’s property is not intended as a forum for the expression of personal opinions; other means exist for that.

Last week, FIRE placed a copy of our full-page U.S. News ad in The State News, MSU’s student newspaper. We also will be contacting a lot of student organizations to let them know two things:

1. MSU has suffered two years’ worth of national embarrassment over its disrespect for free speech on campus; and
2. MSU student organizations can be part of the solution, if they’re willing to stand up for their own rights.

It is easy for MSU to get off of FIRE’s Red Alert list. All it needs to do is redress the infirmities in the new spam policy. Few, if any, students at public universities in the United States expect such a level of disrespect for free speech on their university-provided e-mail accounts, and it is long past time for MSU to set things right.

Schools: Michigan State University