This Month in FIRE History: Michigan State University Engaged in Thought Reform
December 30, 2008
December appears to be a tough month for civil liberties at Michigan State. For those who have been following Kara Spencer's "spam" case at MSU, you may be interested to learn that this is not the first time FIRE has been at odds with the university over the holidays.
In December of 2006, FIRE called for the end of MSU's Student Accountability in Community Seminar (SAC). SAC was designed as an Orwellian "early intervention" program, modeled after an approach used to combat domestic violence. Among the many qualifying offenses for admission into SAC was "obfuscation," defined as "obscuring, concealing, or changing people's perceptions that result in your advantage and/or another's disadvantage." This bewildering statement not only encompassed many types of protected speech, it also trampled upon students' sanctity of conscience. In practice, some of the many offenses that could land a student in SAC were slamming doors and rudeness to doormen.
The program mandated that students take "full responsibility" for their alleged crimes by using language approved by the administration in written statements accepting culpability. Furthermore, if students did not participate in SAC (which also involved a $50 fee), they had a hold placed on their account which prevented them from registering for classes the following semester.
As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff wrote in our initial letter to MSU:
At the heart of all concepts relating to freedom of the mind is a recognition of our own limitations—like us, those in power are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, and therefore have no right to dictate to others what their deepest personal beliefs must be. Concern for free speech and freedom of conscience is rooted in the wisdom of humility and restraint. The SAC program, which presumes to show students the specific ideological assumptions they need to be better people, crosses the boundary from punishment into invasive and immoral thought reform. We can conceive of no way in which the SAC program can be maintained consistent with the ideals of a free society.
After five months of pressure from FIRE, MSU officially ended the SAC program, which had been in place since 1998.
Unfortunately, this was not the last we heard from MSU. In the past two years, we have had three cases at the university, most recently landing them on our Red Alert list along with four other schools that have shown consistent disregard for individual rights on campus. We hope that MSU will take the steps we have outlined in order to preserve the civil liberties of the campus community. If not, because sunlight is said to be one of the best disinfectants, we will continue to work to ensure that the First Amendment is protected at MSU.