It’s been a long time coming, but change has finally come for Michigan State University’s (MSU’s) Student Accountability in Community (SAC) program. Yes, after months of pressure from FIRE, MSU has finally seen the error of their ways, announcing in a letter to FIRE last week that the controversial SAC program has been dismantled. In his letter, Vice President for Student Affairs and Services Lee June says that “the program is not currently operating,” and that if it returns, it will no longer be mandatory, nor will it punish students for engaging in protected speech.
By now, most Torch readers will be familiar with the SAC program’s unique blend of First Amendment violations, but if not, let’s review quickly. Simply put, the SAC program forced students found demonstrating “aggressive” behavior to participate in mandatory counseling wherein they were compelled to state, in approved language, exactly why their behavior was “wrong.” According to examples included in SAC program materials, SAC administrators were the sole judges of whether a student’s behavior—which might involve protected speech like “insulting an instructor,” or nothing more than a girl slamming a door in a fight with her boyfriend—were suitably aggressive enough for SAC referral. Once referred, students were required to pay to attend four SAC sessions. If payment wasn’t received, a hold was placed on a student’s account—functioning as an effective expulsion, as the hold blocked the student’s ability to register for classes.
The myriad problems with the SAC program were clearly outlined in FIRE’s first letter to MSU:
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.
Back in December, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, informed by his own personal experience, spelled out FIRE’s concerns on The Torch:
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.[…]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.
Needless to say, it’s a relief to all of us here at FIRE that one of the worst disciplinary programs we’ve ever seen has been ended.
University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and board chair Scott Bok announced their resignations after McGill said the university should back away from its traditional protection of speech.
Creating a “genocide” exception to free speech only opens the door to more speech restrictions and selective enforcement.
Frederick Douglass argued that freedom of speech was essential in maintaining one’s liberty. In the minds of Douglass and other abolitionists, the free exchange of ideas produced greater political freedom.
Special guest post by Stephen Rohde on the string of controversies regarding free speech and anti-Semitism on college campuses.