Montana State University is revising a policy that required student organizations to hand over event attendee lists to administrators — even in the absence of a single positive case of COVID-19 among attendees.
MSU’s communications department confirmed to FIRE last Thursday that the Office of Student Engagement is “crafting and disseminating new language regarding attendance guidelines to make it clear there is no requirement that student clubs record attendance and then provide those records to the university.”
FIRE wrote to MSU on Wednesday urging it to resist the temptation to unnecessarily abridge constitutional rights and to amend the misguided policy.
On July 29, an administrator informed student organization leaders that, as part of MSU’s COVID-19 protocol, all student clubs and organizations “are required to track attendance at events, including closed meetings.” This mandatory attendance would be taken via two apps maintained by the university. MSU did not disclose the existence of any policy limiting the purposes for which administrators could access the attendee lists or how long lists would be stored.
As a public institution, MSU is required to uphold students’ constitutional rights. The First Amendment protects not only the right to speak publicly, but also the right to speak and associate anonymously. In NAACP v. Patterson (1958), the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed “the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations.”
Giving administrators access to attendance lists from student organization-sponsored events threatens to place a harmful chilling effect on speech and expressive association — especially when one considers the controversial or sensitive nature of some student organizations. In our letter, FIRE reminded MSU that although universities may require organizations to take reasonable steps to keep students safe during the pandemic, that interest does not justify requiring students to disclose attendance records from all student organization-sponsored events, nor to maintain such records longer than necessary to meet the needs of contract-tracers.
FIRE applauds MSU for its quick response and willingness to bring the policy in line with the First Amendment. We’ll watch for MSU’s new policy, and we stand by to help universities across the country craft policies that respect individual rights.