FIRE President Greg Lukianoff opined on the Orwellian nature of Michigan State University’s (MSU’s) Student Accountability in Community program in The Detroit News today.
As FIRE has previously described, the Student Accountability in Community (SAC) program is a disciplinary early intervention seminar that not only punishes students for making practical jokes and rude remarks, but forces students whose behaviors or attitudes are considered unacceptable to undergo mandatory ideological reeducation at their own expense.
The SAC program materials show that the program is aimed at forcing students to admit that behaviors they might have seen as merely rude or prankish are actually subtle manifestations of “power-and-control tactics” and “male/white privilege.” Students are held in the seminar until they confess that they agree with the university’s assessment of their actions, which in most cases are nonetheless fully protected by the Constitution.
As Greg says in the editorial:
The SAC program is a legal minefield. Possible constitutional claims against it include enforcing an unconstitutional speech code, compelling students to speak against their will and the basic denial of due process, as well as contractual claims stemming from MSU’s promises of free speech and due process.
Yes, state colleges may punish students for inappropriate or abusive behavior, but this program goes well beyond these bounds into pseudo-psychological re-education. Free societies do not tell people what they must say or feel under threat of punishment, and our universities should respect the fundamental right to private conscience.
At the heart of FIRE’s objections to the SAC program is the right to private conscience. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), Justice Robert H. Jackson declared, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” These words should be the moral and legal compass by which MSU assesses the SAC program.