Chances are that you check your e-mail at least once a day. If you are, though, you are wasting your time, says David Gift, Vice Provost of Libraries, Computing and Technology at Michigan State University. In a recent article (which extensively quotes our own Will Creeley) by student reporter Ian Kullgren in the Michigan State student publication The Big Green, Gift provided yet another piece of evidence for why the university richly deserves its place among FIRE President Greg Lukianoff's "12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech," featured at The Huffington Post. In defending MSU's unconstitutional policy that labels you a spammer for sending more than 10 friends, classmates, or faculty the same unsolicited e-mail within 48 hours—no matter how important or relevant the subject—Gift let loose this jewel of common sense and constitutional analysis:
"The policy does not infringe on free speech. In the age of social networking and the web, email is a remarkably inefficient means by which to express and spread ideas; people in the MSU community have much more effective alternatives available to them," David Gift, Vice Provost of Libraries, Computing and Technology said in an email.
Whether or not a policy infringes on free speech has nothing to do with whether or not that expression is efficiently communicated. You are equally free to express your opinion over e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, telephone, fax, shortwave radio, tin cans attached with string, Pony Express, telegraph, smoke signals, a chain of signal fires, or what have you. Efficiency simply does not enter into the equation. The government, in this case the state agency that is Michigan State University, does not get to censor you because it feels your method of expression is "inefficient."
Gift is also dead wrong about the efficiency, as it happens. In this case, the message that Michigan State student government leader Kara Spencer was to be punished for sending (before FIRE and other civil liberties organizations stepped in) had to do with encouraging faculty members to join her in opposition to a shortening of the university's academic calendar. For this purpose, there is almost certainly no more efficient method than e-mail. In order to do this on Facebook, Spencer would have had to "friend" every faculty member with whom she wished to communicate, they would have to accept, and then she would have to send them a Facebook message. Of course, Spencer was not trying to make friends with the faculty—she was trying to communicate with them on a single, substantive issue. Approximately the same problem would be present with Twitter, where one really only communicates well with one's followers. I would further invite Vice Provost Gift to efficiently and effectively communicate Spencer's message in 140 characters or less. Good luck with that.
If I were feeling particularly churlish, I might also point out that Vice Provost Gift's statement about how e-mail was a "remarkably inefficient" way to express ideas was sent to the publication via e-mail. So it seems clear that e-mail might have some life left in it yet.
Everyone who has an e-mail account knows what spam is. Nigerian princes, fake bank e-mails, V1@gra ads, you name it—spam is a constant annoyance for which even civil libertarians like me fantasize about handing out harsh (and preferably physically painful) penalties. However, you don't have to get very far into reading Kara Spencer's actual e-mail to know it's not your garden-variety spam:
The Provost has proposed changes to the Academic Calendar and Fall Welcome schedule which are slated for final approval on September 23, 2008. Faculty, administrators, and students have voiced concerns regarding the process of the proposal. As concerned students we feel that adequate time has not been given to address the multitude of issues the proposed changes raise.
In discussions with members of the university community, we have discovered that many are unaware of the impending changes, or the likely repercussions, which will greatly affect both faculty and students alike.
Geez, she didn't even offer me 10 percent of a deposed dictator's ill-gotten gains! Michigan State's continued insistence that e-mails like this are spam and that students should be able to be punished for sending them is an embarassment to the institution. Along with Gift's absurd comment above, it's clear that FIRE is richly justified in keeping Michigan State on our Red Alert list of the "worst of the worst" colleges for free speech until it finally admits that there's no excuse for restricting this kind of student expression.