In the wake of its recent treatment of student government leader Kara Spencer, Michigan State University (MSU) has achieved the unflattering distinction of being named to FIRE’s Red Alert list. MSU yesterday found Spencer guilty of "spamming" and misuse of university resources after she criticized the administration’s plan to change the school calendar. Spencer had carefully selected and e-mailed 391 faculty members to encourage them to express their views on the proposed changes. Despite the fact that Spencer merely wished to alert a small percentage of the campus community—roughly 8 percent of MSU’s faculty—to an important administrative decision, MSU has found her to be in violation of the university’s Network Acceptable Use Policy and of engaging in an "unauthorized" use of the MSU network.
FIRE’s Red Alert list is reserved for the "worst of the worst" when it comes to liberty on campus. Colleges and universities on the list have demonstrated a severe and ongoing disregard for the fundamental rights of their students and faculty. In this case, not only did MSU choose to proceed with a hearing against Spencer after FIRE had written to call for an end to the investigation, MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon falsely claimed that the university’s spamming policy was acceptable because it was "content neutral." MSU then clinched its place on the Red Alert list with its findings yesterday.
MSU is no stranger to violations of students’ essential freedoms. Torch readers may recall that just last year, FIRE was able to bring an end to MSU’s Student Accountability in Community (SAC) program, a troubling thought reform program which forced students whose speech or conduct was deemed unacceptable to undergo ideological reeducation or else face effective expulsion. The program is memorable for, among other things, the "Power and Control Wheel" used to identify problematic student behavior.
As is the case with the other schools on the Red Alert list, MSU can easily get off the list, if it corrects its violations of fundamental rights. So what does MSU need to do to get off the Red Alert list? Quite simply, it needs to reverse the findings against Spencer and remove the formal "Warning" placed in her student file. It must recognize that Spencer was well within her rights at a public university to send her e-mail to the faculty recipients. By taking these measures, MSU can spare itself the prolonged embarrassment of remaining in the company of the "worst of the worst."