The e-mail that Michigan State University student Kara Spencer sent to 391 professors in September wasn’t vulgar, abusive or libelous.
It was meant as an informational e-mail, an appeal to speak up about a campus issue.
It still landed her in a disciplinary hearing in front of MSU’s Student-Faculty Judiciary last week, facing possible suspension.
Spencer had allegedly violated university regulations on the use of its computer network. Those regulations prohibit individuals from sending unsolicited bulk e-mails for personal reasons and set the bar for bulk e-mail at 20 to 30 recipients over two days.
For Spencer – who didn’t know the outcome of her hearing late Tuesday – that’s not the issue at all.
‘Free speech issue’
“It’s a free speech issue,” she said. “The policy, the more that I’ve looked at it, the more that I have listened to administrators talk about it, is fundamentally flawed.”
MSU officials disagree. University President Lou Anna Simon wrote in an e-mail that the policy is “a set of procedural requirements that apply to all bulk use of the e-mail system, as opposed to a policy that makes distinctions based on the content of particular e-mails.”
“It is our belief that such a policy does not impose unlawful restrictions on free speech.”
Spencer, a junior studying international relations, sent the e-mail because she was concerned about plans to shorten MSU’s Welcome Week by two days starting next year and to cut two teaching days out of the fall semester in the process.
She was concerned that the community hadn’t been given enough time to respond to the university’s plans. She encouraged the professors to speak up.
“The proposed changes were going to have a significant effect on faculty and students,” she said.
“I can’t imagine how that could be prohibited by the university.”
But MSU officials said they have an interest in limiting the amount of spam e-mail.
David Gift, vice-provost for libraries, computing and technology, said the policy is “basically a community construct to help people manage the volume of messaging that occurs in certain venues, so that work life and other things can be more efficient and productive.”
He noted that MSU also has rules against stuffing flyers or junk mail into student mailboxes.
Spencer thinks her opposition to the administration had something to do with the fact that she ended up in a disciplinary hearing.
“If I had sent out an e-mail in support of the provost’s proposal, I’m not sure we’d be having this conversation,” she said.
MSU officials insisted the policy isn’t enforced that way.
They also said they could not discuss the specifics of Spencer’s case because of privacy laws.
But, in an MSU document detailing the allegations – a document released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech advocacy organization that has taken up Spencer’s cause – an MSU official wrote she had “flatly refused to obtain the proper permissions” and “demanded that I file charges against her.”
Spencer disputes that version of events.
The verdict of the Student-Faculty Judiciary was supposed to come Tuesday. As of Tuesday evening, Spencer didn’t know the outcome.
But unless she’s fully exonerated, she said, she’ll appeal to the university, perhaps take the case to federal court.
“At this point, I have learned so much about this process and about this policy that I have to respond,” she said.
From “Guidelines Regarding Bulk E-mailing by Internal Users on MSUnet”:
• “The quantity of undesired e-mail (“spam”) everyone receives is large and continues to increase. Spam is not only bothersome and sometimes offensive, but it also entails a material cost of personal time to process and eliminate from one’s e-mail Inbox. “Download file "E-mail lands student in hearing at MSU"