FIRE to Student Groups at Michigan State University: Help Fight for First Amendment Rights

By September 24, 2010

Today, FIRE sent the following e-mail to the leadership of Michigan State University’s student groups, asking for their help in reforming MSU’s unconstitutional e-mail policy. We wrote:

To the student leaders of Michigan State University:

This year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws) purchased a full-page advertisement in U.S. News & World Report‘s annual "America’s Best Colleges" issue, calling attention to the worst violators of free speech on college campuses. As you might be aware, Michigan State University is one of just six schools on this "worst of the worst" list. We call it FIRE’s Red Alert list because we are actively warning prospective students to think twice before attending MSU. We are asking for your help in getting MSU off of the list.

It didn’t have to be this way. In the fall of 2008, ASMSU officer Kara Spencer was sanctioned by MSU for contacting MSU faculty members through the university’s e-mail system. Spencer was concerned about planned changes to MSU’s academic calendar that affected every faculty member and student on campus. MSU had offered only a very short time for public comment. To enlist the aid of MSU’s faculty on short notice, she carefully selected and then e-mailed 391 members of the MSU faculty (about 7% of the faculty). Spencer’s committee knew about the e-mail but did not express any concerns with it.

A single faculty member complained about receiving the e-mail. Spencer then was informed that she had violated numerous MSU policies by "spamming" the faculty. Despite the fact that Spencer’s e-mail was timely and concerned an issue of importance to the MSU community, she was found guilty of violating MSU’s "spamming" policy. A warning was placed in her student file.

After FIRE and twelve other national civil liberties organizations published an open letter to MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, bringing widespread public exposure to Spencer’s case, MSU withdrew all the charges.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The anti-spam policy that was used to punish Spencer’s thoughtful activism not only remains, but is even worse than before.

The new policy limits mailings such as Spencer’s to just ten recipients. This policy places practically unheard-of limits on the right of MSU students to express their opinions to other members of the MSU community via e-mail. Can you imagine any public institution as strict as MSU?

The University’s e-mail services are not intended as a forum for the expression of personal opinions. Other means exist in the University community for the expression and dissemination of personal opinions on matters of interest within the University community. Rather, the University’s e-mail services are provided to support the University’s instructional, public service, research, and administrative objectives. [Emphasis added.]

This policy is a blow to students’ normal expectations as well as a slap in the face to their right of free expression. Take a look at how an e-mail restriction at a school in Louisiana has made national news this week and drawn the attention of the state’s ACLU.

Please share this information with other campus leaders. You are invested in the major issues facing the MSU community and society at large, and you deserve better.

FIRE is asking you to urge the MSU administration to return First Amendment rights to MSU students. If this policy is properly revised, FIRE will remove MSU from our Red Alert list and honor MSU’s leadership for doing the right thing for student rights. We encourage you to work behind the scenes as well as to publish letters and editorials, post flyers, petition the ASMSU to put student rights at the top of its agenda–and, yes, even send some unsolicited e-mails.

Let the MSU administration know that you do not stand for censorship on campus. For MSU students to expect anything less than the free speech they deserve is to reject their rights and refuse to defend them as citizens of a leading public university.

I appreciate your attention to this important issue. Please feel free to contact me at peter@www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws if you have any questions or comments. I welcome your input.

Sincerely,

Peter Bonilla
Program Officer, Individual Rights Defense Program
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

Schools: Michigan State University