FIRE's Free Speech Billboard Ad about Michigan State Rejected
January 24, 2011
by Adam Kissel
An advertising company has refused to run a billboard ad from FIRE promoting free speech at Michigan State University (MSU). The ad, which would have appeared very close to MSU's campus this month, addresses MSU's draconian e-mail policy. Unlike virtually all colleges and universities, MSU claims in its policy that "The University's e-mail services are not intended as a forum for the expression of personal opinions."
Here is a copy of the ad that was rejected:
In an e-mail from Crosstown Communications President Steve Pickering to FIRE, Pickering wrote that "after review of the proposed advertisement, Pick Outdoor declines to display it on the digital billboard at 111 N. Harrison." Pickering appears to be the owner of Pick Outdoor.
As a private company, Pick Outdoor has a right to reject FIRE's advertisement. However, for the benefit of the MSU community, rejecting the ad is the wrong thing to do. MSU used its unconstitutional e-mail policy to threaten to suspend an MSU student government member for sending e-mails to a selected group of faculty members about a time-sensitive, campus-wide issue. Under pressure from FIRE, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and 11 other civil liberties organizations, MSU withdrew all charges against the student, but then enacted an even more severe policy.
In the educational context, a public university cannot punish minimally disruptive speech—in this case, as few as 11 unsolicited e-mails to different people over the course of 48 hours. And it is not necessarily disruptive to receive an unsolicited e-mail—especially when it concerns a critical campus issue.
Did Pick Outdoor refuse to run the billboard because it was afraid of retaliation or backlash from MSU? It's unlikely the company would admit it if it did. (An e-mail to Pick Outdoor informing the company of FIRE's plans to announce its rejection of our advertisement went unanswered.) But considering that Michigan State is evidently run by administrators who are happy to use a technology use policy to silence one of their own students simply for questioning why the academic calendar should be shortened (without any reduction in tuition costs, of course), it wouldn't be surprising if Pick Outdoor figured that MSU would react to criticism more like a vengeful bureaucrat than like a publicly-funded institution that is genuinely committed to the ideals of free and open debate and discussion.
Unsurprisingly, MSU is on FIRE's "Red Alert" list, representing the six "worst of the worst" schools that have violated free speech rights on campus. While this particular billboard may be off the table, FIRE will continue to advocate for the rights of all MSU students in innovative ways.