FIRE Requests that Student Body at Michigan State Stand Up for Students' Rights
November 10, 2009
by Adam Kissel
Last year, Michigan State University (MSU) found a student guilty of "spamming" after she e-mailed "too many" professors at once with an urgent message about changes to the school calendar—changes that the university appeared to be pushing through on short notice. After FIRE and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and about a dozen additional free speech organizations) intervened, the charges were dropped.
But then, MSU strangely declared its entire e-mail system closed to "the expression of personal opinions," while leaving so many loopholes that MSU essentially reserved total discretion to decide which e-mails could be permitted or banned. In response, FIRE placed MSU on our "Red Alert" list, reserved for the "worst of the worst" offenders against individual rights on campus, and exposed MSU's shameful actions in a full-page ad in U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges issue.
Today, I myself have violated MSU's new e-mail policy in order to contact about 20 members of the student Academic Assembly. (The stated limit is 10 recipients). I did so because the Academic Assembly has scheduled a vote for today on a new version of the "Academic Freedom Report," a document regarding students' rights and responsibilities and various disciplinary and grievance processes. In my e-mail, I request that the Academic Assembly delay the vote (or vote No) until the extremely repressive e-mail policy is revised in a way that respects students' rights.
This is what I wrote:
Dear members of the Academic Assembly:
The e-mail you are reading breaks MSU's new e-mail rules, since I am e-mailing somewhat more than 10 people with the same message, even though I am writing you about a very important issue regarding your work for students' rights. Unfortunately, I do not have any other way to contact all of you.
I am writing you in order to recommend that you delay your vote on the new Academic Freedom Report until MSU restores free speech under its new e-mail policy.
When MSU revised its e-mail policy last spring, it seriously stripped away students' free speech. MSU declared that e-mail was no longer the kind of forum that students expect, not even by basic common sense. MSU's policy now states that "The University's e-mail services are not intended as a forum for the expression of personal opinions."
Indeed, MSU restricted the content of e-mail to university business alone, while leaving so many loopholes that MSU essentially reserved total discretion to decide which e-mails could be permitted or banned.
You can read it for yourself at http://lct.msu.edu/guidelines-policies/appropriate-use-of-msu-email.html. Is this really the set of rules you want to live under?
In fact, this new policy flies in the face of Academic Freedom Report Article 1.5.1, which states that "All regulations shall seek the best possible reconciliation of the principles of maximum freedom and necessary order." Article 1.5.7 adds that "Regulations shall respect the free expression of ideas and shall encourage the competition of ideas from diverse perspectives."
Since the new e-mail policy comes nowhere near these standards, I urge the Academic Assembly to delay voting on the new AFR until the new e-mail policy is made consistent with the student rights that students expect at a free institution like MSU.
If it is not possible to delay the vote under the rules, I ask that you vote No in order to resolve the issue first.
The Academic Assembly would be sending the wrong message about student rights if it passes the AFR without addressing the e-mail issue. Basically it would mean that the noble principles in the AFR can be flouted by MSU when it makes regulations. Thus the AFR would not really restrict the university from making highly restrictive regulations that diminish students' rights.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions. You can reach me at 215-717-3473 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Director, Individual Rights Defense Program
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
PS I have sent a similar note to [Academic Assembly Chairperson] Kristy Currier (which makes my violation of the e-mail policy all the worse!)
If MSU's Academic Freedom Report is going to mean what it says, the responsible thing for the Academic Assembly to do is withhold approval until the e-mail issue is resolved.