Victory for Freedom of Conscience

May 3, 2007

EAST LANSING, Mich., May 3, 2007—After months of public pressure, Michigan State University (MSU) has ended its controversial Student Accountability in Community (SAC) program. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) urged MSU to end the SAC program because it forced students whose speech or behavior was deemed unacceptable to undergo ideological reeducation, or else face effective expulsion.
“Until now, engaging in free speech at MSU could have resulted in mandatory pseudo-psychological counseling or the end of a student’s academic career,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “We’re overjoyed to learn that students no longer have to fear potentially ruinous consequences for exercising their First Amendment right to free expression at MSU.”
The university billed the SAC program as an “early intervention” for students who exhibited what the university vaguely labeled “accountability issues.” Students employing so-called power-and-control tactics, which MSU confusingly defined as “any action of obscuring, concealing, or changing people’s perceptions that result in your advantage and/or another’s disadvantage,” received SAC referrals. Administrators could refer students to the SAC program for “aggressive” behavior—even if their behavior was as isolated and insignificant as a girl slamming a door during an argument with her boyfriend. Constitutionally protected speech such as “insulting instructors” or “making sexist, homophobic, or racist remarks at a meeting” could also qualify students for the SAC program. Adding insult to injury, students were required to pay to attend the SAC sessions.
In the SAC sessions, administrators required students to fill out a series of written questionnaires about their behavior. Students were compelled to admit, using administrator-approved language, their “full responsibility” for their alleged misdeeds. The SAC program’s goal was to elicit from students statements of complicity with a specific ideology, which emphasized “privilege” and a uniform agreement with why their behavior was unacceptable. The SAC Guide states that mandatory referrals to the program “require students to complete SAC as a judicial sanction and non-compliance typically results in a hold being placed on the student’s account.” Unable to register for classes, students resisting this compulsory program of thought reform would find themselves effectively expelled from the university.
Beginning in November 2006, FIRE expressed concerns about SAC’s constitutionality and pressured MSU to end the program. In response, MSU Vice President for Student Affairs and Services Lee N. June replied that FIRE had “raise[d] serious questions that call for a review of the SAC program.” In early March, MSU released the results of its review of the program and its potential reforms. Unsatisfied, FIRE again wrote to MSU on March 29, 2007 urging the university to clarify the program’s status and to respond to FIRE’s concerns about SAC’s constitutionality.
On April 17, June informed FIRE that MSU will no longer compel any student to attend SAC sessions, that no student will be penalized for engaging in constitutionally protected speech, and, most importantly, that “the program is not currently operating.”
“The SAC program encroached upon students’ freedom of conscience, forcing them to comply with a set of principles they might not hold to be true,” Lukianoff said. “If MSU decides to resuscitate this deeply flawed program, FIRE will be there to make sure that the university does not use it to deny students their basic constitutional rights.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Michigan State University and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
CONTACT:
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg_lukianoff@thefire.org
Lou Anna K. Simon, President, Michigan State University: 517-355-6560; presmail@msu.edu

Cases: Michigan State University: Program of Thought Reform