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Thought Reform and Compelled Speech at Michigan State

Today, FIRE issued a press release on the simply stunning thought reform program at Michigan State University. The university’s Student Accountability in Community seminar (SAC) forces students whose speech or behavior is deemed unacceptable to undergo ideological reeducation at their own expense. While the “seminar” can be either a “voluntary” or mandatory sanction, according to Michigan State administrators a student can receive a mandatory sanction for something as minimal as slamming a door in an argument. A mandatory SAC sanction, by the way, means that if you do not complete the four pseudo-psychological “educational” sessions a hold will be placed on your account—in other words, you are effectively expelled.
I’m not sure I would have believed it if I hadn’t actually been there. In 2002, I attended a session called “How to Increase Student Accountability in Your Campus Community” at the Association for Student Judicial Affairs (ASJA) meeting in Clearwater, Florida. The session was hosted by Michigan State administrators in an effort to promote the SAC program as a model for other universities to follow in dealing with their students. Before the session started, there was a graph on the white board. At the bottom of the graph they listed “practical jokes”; at the top of the graph they listed “assault” and “rape.”
I thought to myself, “please don’t tell me they are going to say what I think they are going to say.” What I was worried they were going to say was “we’ve noticed that people who engage in lower-level behaviors such as practical jokes are often the ones who eventually commit offenses like assault and rape, and we think that it is important to sentence these students to ‘accountability training’ as early as possible.” Lo and behold, that was essentially exactly what they said…and it only went downhill from there.
The SAC program is essentially this: You are caught speaking or behaving in a way that may not be punishable in other ways but is deemed aggressive by a university administrator. You are made to sit down in a room with an administrator for four sessions—which you have to pay for out of your own pocket!—in order learn how to take greater “accountability” for what you have done. You first write down what you think you did wrong—which, by the looks of it, is never the “correct” way to say it. You are then given the “Power and Control Wheel” and asked to list the ways you may have used “privilege,” “obfuscation,” or “honeymooning.” (I’m serious. Check out the program materials yourself). You are then asked to fill out the forms again and again until you give the “correct” answer.
We elucidate what this training means in practice in our letter to Michigan State, referencing the 2002 ASJA session:
An example given at the conference was of a student who had been sentenced to mandatory SAC program “training” for being rude to a dormitory receptionist. His initial explanation of what he had done wrong was “I should’ve been more polite.” The leaders of the ASJA session, however, explained that this was not an adequate response, stating that the eventual “correct” answer was “I feel entitled to be in the residence hall and that’s wrong.”
Yup. Confess your sense of entitlement and you get to stay at Michigan State! (We also noted in our letter that “given how much students have to pay to stay in dormitories at most colleges, perhaps his initial answer—that he simply should not have been rude to the receptionist—was indeed the right answer.”)
The whole session was like that, just example after example of theories, practices, and pseudo-psychological counseling. Thankfully I was not the only person in the audience who was disturbed by this program, but there were others who seemed to buy into it hook, line and sinker. As we noted in our letter, one audience member asked, “How do I deal with people with religious beliefs that ‘justify’ their anger?”
How did the administrators from Michigan State leading the session respond? “Religious beliefs may be a form of obfuscation.” I could hardly believe my ears.
This quote, among many others, and the fact that the program was apparently designed by members of the school’s domestic violence program, helped me see this program for what it really is: a reeducation program intended to root out even appropriate or justifiable hostility among students. This is social engineering at its worst and utterly ignores the privacy, autonomy, and individual dignity of students.
I cannot do justice to the scale of wrongs embodied in this program. As I did in today’s press release, I urge readers to review our letter and the program materials. “Orwellian” may be a bit over-used these days, but this program truly earns that description. The legal problems with the program—particularly at a public university like Michigan State—leave me flabbergasted. As we note in our letter:
Possible claims against MSU for operating such a program include federal and state constitutional claims for having and enforcing an unconstitutional speech code, for compelling people to speak against their will (something that has been anathema to free societies since long before the Barnette case), for basic denial of due process, and even—given the statements of the hosts of the ASJA seminar and the specific assumptions required by the “power wheels”—for possible violations of both the constitutionally protected freedom of religion, and, according to at least one legal analyst who examined the policy, the establishment clause. Further, the SAC program arguably violates MSU’s contractual promises of free speech and due process, forces students to unlawfully self-incriminate under threat of expulsion, violates both state and federal privacy laws. Simply put, the SAC program is a legal minefield.
Nearly five years after I first attended the ASJA session, I had hoped that the SAC program had gone the way of the Dodo, but this summer we had a legal intern call to see if the program was up and running. The university confirmed that the program was still in place and remained essentially unchanged. We had originally intended simply to write a law review article about the myriad threats to individual liberty posed by such programs, but decided that we could not let the SAC program at Michigan State remain unchallenged. Michigan State has said it will review the program, but we can think of no way the university can rectify the situation except by abolishing the program entirely.

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