Hurt Feelings Lead to ‘Personal Abuse’ Charge for Northern Michigan University Student President

April 16, 2010

Nearly two centuries ago, a brief respite in partisan bickering among our major national political parties led a journalist to coin the phrase the Era of Good Feelings to describe the early years of President James Monroe’s administration. I open with this nod to our early history because the administration at Northern Michigan University (NMU) seems bent on forcing a similar aura to emanate from its student government. And if the students can’t get it on their own, then darn it, NMU will do it by force, with threats and intimidation.

NMU’s current controversy began with an April 1 letter authored by outgoing Associated Students of NMU (ASNMU) President Jason Morgan and published in The North Wind, a student paper at NMU (“ASNMU is standing up for students”). Morgan’s letter responded to a letter printed days earlier from another NMU student (“ASNMU is going down the wrong path,” March 25), in which the student asserted that the Associated Students’ “well-respected and levelheaded treasurer resigned due to the nature of the members of the organization.” Morgan replied to this student by contending that “the ‘level-headed treasurer’ would have been up for impeachment due to neglect of duties if he hadn’t resigned.”

Andrew Foster, the student treasurer in question, was understandably not happy with the remark. I don’t blame him: reading in my campus paper that I was facing impeachment if I hadn’t resigned my position wouldn’t fill me with joy, either. However, rather than attempting to publicly correct the record via, for instance, The North Wind, which I imagine would have had little problem giving him the space, Foster instead took the matter up with NMU’s Dean of Students. The next day, Morgan received a notice of charges from Associate Dean of Students Mary Brundage, informing him that he was being charged with “disorderly conduct” and “personal abuse” on the basis of eighteen words printed in The North Wind.

NMU’s Student Handbook describes these violations as such:

2.2.9 Disorderly Conduct

(penalty: not less than warning probation; not more than suspension)

No students shall make any disturbance or threat of violence in or on any building or property owned or controlled by the University. In the interpretation and application of this regulation, either a disturbance or a threat of violence shall be sufficient to constitute a violation. Fighting, defined as engaging in and continuing when one has an opportunity to disengage from a physical struggle with another person, is specifically prohibited under this regulation.

[A disturbance, which is something less than threats of violence, is an interruption of peace and quiet, a violation of public order in decorum, or an interference with or hindrance of one in pursuit of his/her lawful right or occupation.]


2.2.21 Personal Abuse 

(penalty: not less than disciplinary probation; not more than expulsion)

No students shall deliberately or recklessly injure, threaten, endanger, or degrade a member of the University community.

NMU’s rationale for slapping Morgan with these two counts, as noted in his charges, was that he had “provided false or misleading information” and that “[t]he student referred to in this statement [felt] degraded, humiliated, and angry. The student referred to [feared] his reputation and future may be injured by this statement.”

Morgan and many others were shocked that his statement could warrant such charges. In spite of the charges, Morgan remained firm in his belief in the veracity of his statement, as he told The North Wind:

Morgan said the letter to the editor was factual and doesn’t constitute a violation of the Student Code. In winter semester, Foster missed one ASNMU board meeting on February 22 and two “Let’s Chat” sessions, which Morgan said would mean that Foster would have been eligible for impeachment.

“To clarify, (Foster) could have been impeached, but I wouldn’t have spent my time trying to impeach somebody for missing meetings,” Morgan said.

Foster obviously did not agree with Morgan’s interpretation, and FIRE for its part will not take one person’s word over another here. Foster stated to The North Wind that “I think it’s important for somebody to stand up for themselves and to not let false statements go uncontested.” The integrity of such a statement is unimpeachable; indeed, it is the “marketplace of ideas” at work. Reporting your opponent to the authorities, however, is not.
Still, it is NMU that must truly be called to task here. FIRE could write a five-act opera on why universities cannot punish students for such things as “deliberately degrad[ing] a member of the University community.” Such charges make a mockery of the First Amendment and intolerably chill speech across the campus. And yet, NMU planned to hold a hearing to force Morgan to answer these unconstitutional charges.

In the end, it didn’t get that far; Morgan and Foster, with the coordination of the Dean of Students office, crafted and published a follow-up letter in The North Wind, stating that “At times … we disagree, but we would like to make it known that disagreeing should not lead to disrespect. We both agree that looking forward is far more important than dwelling on the past.” In return, the grievance and charges were dropped. Missing from the joint letter was the fact that, had Morgan not agreed to the statement, and had Foster not endorsed Morgan’s apology, NMU would have proceeded full-speed ahead with Morgan’s hearing, for which a group of Morgan’s supporters had mobilized and planned to protest.

A final note: If NMU’s “personal abuse” charge against Morgan rings familiar to Torch readers, it’s because you’ve indeed heard it before. In 2006, a student at the University of Central Florida (UCF) received the same charge from the university for creating a Facebook page opposing the candidacy of a student running for UCF’s student government, titled “Victor Perez is a Jerk and a Fool.” Here’s what FIRE wrote to UCF President John C. Hitt in response:

As the Supreme Court noted in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), “freedom of speech, though not absolute…is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest…. There is no room under our Constitution for a more restrictive view.” (Internal citations omitted.) And indeed, the Supreme Court has held that the constitution protects many kinds of expression much more offensive than [student Matthew] Walston’s.  For example, in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667 (1973), the Court determined that a student newspaper article entitled “Motherfucker Acquitted” was constitutionally protected speech, and in Hustler v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), the Court ruled that the First Amendment protected a cartoon suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell lost his virginity in a drunken encounter with his mother in an outhouse.  In Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), the Court explained the rationale behind these decisions well, saying that “[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Under these standards, there can be no question that calling someone a “jerk and a fool” is protected by the First Amendment.

Northern Michigan University may well be hearing this message from FIRE soon. If it thinks it is out of the woods just because it dropped its charges against Morgan and his constitutionally protected speech, it has another thing coming.

Schools:  Northern Michigan University