This article appeared in The Huffington Post.
Today, as part of a national ad campaign, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education placed a half-page ad in Michigan State University's student newspaper criticizing the university's absurdly overbroad spam policy:
The ad refers to the case of Kara Spencer, a student who, after sending a respectful and serious e-mail to select members of the faculty about the university's decision to reduce the school year by several days, was brought up on charges of spamming. She was then found guilty of spamming and had a formal "Warning" placed in her file, potentially hurting her chances of obtaining employment or attending graduate school. After the intervention of FIRE and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with the support of eleven other civil liberties organizations, MSU withdrew the charges against Kara and promised to reform its spam policy. Unfortunately, the university has put in its place a new spam policy that is not much of an improvement. In fact, according to reports, an administrator admitted that Kara Spencer would still have been found guilty under the revised policy!
People hate spam so much that they often get very irrational when discussing it. I hate spam too, but one thing you learn in First Amendment law is that censors, especially ones on college campuses, are remarkably good at bundling protected speech with speech which does not enjoy constitutional protection (e.g. true harassment, libel, etc.). Calling something spam doesn't make it so. Under MSU's policy, even sending one e-mail on an important topic might not be allowed. A student is not even protected if, as Kara did, he or she uses an outside e-mail address. Hopefully, our hatred of spam is not so blinding that it obscures the fact that the spamming rationale is just another approach to stifle debate on campus. I hope that MSU will reconsider its policy and get off our Red Alert list by this time next year.