EAST LANSING, Mich., December 10, 2008—A Michigan State University student government leader has been found guilty of "spamming" and misuse of university resources after she criticized the administration's plan to change the school calendar. MSU junior Kara Spencer had carefully selected and e-mailed 391 of the school's faculty members, encouraging them to express their views about the changes. Spencer, who plans to appeal her unconstitutional punishment, has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"It is outrageous that MSU's Student-Faculty Judiciary would find against a student who did nothing more than write members of her community who might be concerned about a major administrative decision," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "MSU must immediately reverse this unjust punishment and revise its policy."
In late August, MSU's administration revealed to members of the Faculty Council the administration's plans to shorten the school's Academic Calendar and Fall Welcome (freshman orientation) schedules, and asked that comments about the proposed changes be submitted by September 30. Given the highly controversial nature of the changes, members of the University Committee on Student Affairs (UCSA) met and exchanged e-mails in mid-September to construct a formal response. UCSA consists of several student government members (including Spencer), several faculty members, and several MSU administrators.
On September 14, Spencer notified UCSA that she would send a personal version of the formal response to faculty members. 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 gave any indication that MSU would choose to repress the e-mail or charge Spencer with any breaches of policy. One of the committee members even encouraged her to proceed. On or about September 15, Spencer carefully selected 391 faculty members—roughly 8 percent of MSU's faculty—and e-mailed them her version of UCSA's letter.
Spencer's e-mail argued that the proposed calendar changes "will greatly affect both faculty and students alike," and called for "an inclusive dialogue among members of the University community" prior to adoption.
On September 16, MSU Network Administrator Randall J. Hall summoned Spencer to a mandatory "investigation." The next day, Hall alleged that Spencer had violated as many as five MSU policies by sending what he called unauthorized "spam." After Spencer requested a hearing before the Student-Faculty Judiciary, FIRE wrote MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, calling on her to end the unconstitutional investigation. MSU chose to proceed with the hearing, however, and Simon falsely claimed that the policy was acceptable because it was "content neutral."
MSU proceeded with its shameful hearing on December 2, and the Judiciary notified Spencer this afternoon that she had been found guilty of violating MSU's Network Acceptable Use Policy and of engaging in an "unauthorized" use of the MSU network. Today, Spencer was punished with a formal "Warning" placed in her student file.
MSU's "spam" policy prohibits the sending of an unsolicited e-mail to more than about 20-30 recipients over two days without prior permission.
"MSU's decision defies the First Amendment, fairness, and common sense," Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, said. "MSU is effectively preventing the campus community from sending e-mails criticizing the administration to more than an extremely small fraction of the MSU community. The university should be ashamed, and the president should immediately overturn this illiberal finding."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our nation's campuses. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty at Michigan State University and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.