MARQUETTE, Mich., Sept. 22, 2016—When Northern Michigan University (NMU) students most need to be heard, administrators violate their First Amendment rights.
Last month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to NMU asking the university to announce that it will no longer prohibit students from discussing thoughts of self-harm with other students. NMU failed to respond to FIRE’s request, leaving students unclear as to whether they will face disciplinary action for reaching out to their peers during difficult times.
“NMU is imposing a gag order on students at a time when a conversation with a friend may be most needed,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. “Preventing students from simply reaching out to each other for help cuts off the most basic exercise of the right to speak freely.”
Last fall, an outcry went up from the NMU community after an email from the administration to a student circulated on social media. The email threatened disciplinary action if the student shared “self-destructive” thoughts with other students. As reported in November 2015 by Marquette’s The Mining Journal, the administration admitted that it warned 25 to 30 students per semester that involving other students in “suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions” would result in disciplinary action.
After seeking counseling following a sexual assault, NMU student Katerina Klawes received one of these emails in March 2015, informing her that it was “important that [she] refrain from discussing these issues with other students.” An administrator clarified to Klawes in a subsequent email that she “cannot discuss with other students suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions.”
When her campus began discussing the emails, she started a Change.org petition titled “The I Care Project,” calling on NMU to revise its policies and practices on self-destructive behavior and speech. The petition received over 2,000 signatures within 24 hours and gained local media attention.
After this outpouring, NMU pledged to respond to community input and improve its practices. But almost a year later, NMU has failed to publicly commit to ending a practice that the Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Michigan affiliate has deemed “outrageous.” An incoming NMU first-year student reported that she and others were informed during a 2016 summer orientation session—after NMU pledged to listen to community input—that they could face negative consequences if they discussed thoughts of self-harm with other students.
“Communication with a friend is frequently the pivotal first step toward seeking help, and many students may be more willing to initially share their feelings with a friend than with a school official or therapist,” said Dr. Mendel Feldsher, a psychiatrist who has worked with Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services at the Claremont Colleges for over a decade. “The increasing prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicidality in college students calls for increasing access to mental health services, not adding to stigma with a policy which promotes increased shame for the depressed and suicidal student.”
FIRE’s August 25 letter to the NMU administration made clear that as a public university, NMU is bound to respect students’ free speech rights, and that its ban on peer dialogue violates those rights. FIRE will continue to demand that NMU uphold its legal obligations under the Constitution.
“This policy is archaic and will prohibit students from getting help at a time when it is most needed,” said Klawes. “It adds to the stigma surrounding mental illness and sends the message that NMU does not care about the wellbeing of its students.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org