A leader of Michigan State University's (MSU's) student government faces suspension for "spam" after she carefully selected and e-mailed about 8 percent of the school's faculty members encouraging them to express their views about changes to the freshman orientation and academic calendars. With the blessing of one of MSU's formal committees, MSU junior Kara Spencer notified 391 faculty members about pending changes to the university calendar.
On September 4, 2008, the central administration had notified the faculty that next year's Academic Calendar and Fall Welcome (freshman orientation) each would be shortened by two days, and MSU's central administration was giving the campus only until September 30 to comment. Given the short time frame offered for discussion and the fact that the changes were highly controversial, members of the Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU) and the University Committee on Student Affairs (UCSA) had held an emergency meeting on September 11 to tackle the issue.
The UCSA includes students, several faculty members, and several MSU administrators. Following the meeting, this group engaged in a cooperative e-mail discussion about the content and recipients of a coordinated response.
On September 14, Spencer notified the group that she would be sending her version of the group's response as "an informational email" in her own name. She noted that she had "compiled a database of all faculty on campus" for this purpose. None of the faculty members or administrators involved in the discussion complained about this plan. According to Spencer, on or about September 15, she then carefully selected about 391 faculty members out of MSU's approximately 5,000 faculty, and she e-mailed the 391 faculty members her version of the letter that the group of students, faculty, and administrators had written.
The letter stated concerns about the short amount of time given to the MSU community to consider the changes, "which will greatly affect both faculty and students alike," and called for "an inclusive dialogue among members of the University community" prior to adoption of the changes. The letter added: "Given the immediacy of the situation, we request that any faculty wishing to be heard on this issue contact their Faculty Council representative or the Provost's office."
Shortly thereafter, Professor Katherine Gross complained about receiving this e-mail to Information Technology administrator John Gorentz. Gorentz forwarded the complaint to MSU Network Administrator Randall J. Hall. On September 16, Hall sent Spencer an e-mail summoning her to a mandatory meeting "for investigation" of her e-mail. The next day, Hall alleged that Spencer had violated three MSU policies by sending what he called unauthorized "SPAM." Hall even suggested that all unsolicited e-mails, as well as junk mail, billboards, and posters, are "considered a disruption of the activities of the person receiving the email."
Spencer's ordeal has continued for over two months. After she requested a hearing before the MSU Student-Faculty Judiciary, FIRE wrote MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, calling on her to end the unconstitutional investigation of Spencer. MSU chose to proceed with the hearing, however, on December 2. The Judiciary's verdict is expected early next week.
Threatening a senior member of the student government with suspension for sending noncommercial, relevant e-mails to faculty members is outrageous. As the Supreme Court held in Garrison v. Louisiana, "speech concerning public affairs ... is the essence of self-government" and "debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." MSU is teaching students that they challenge the administration's plans at their peril. It is not too late for President Simon to step in and declare that when it comes to freedom of expression, there is simply nothing to investigate.
President Simon can be reached at 517-355-6560 or email@example.com.