Central Michigan Student Files FERPA Complaint after Prolonged Strife with Administration and Professors
February 13, 2008
by Luke Sheahan
Dennis Lennox, a student at Central Michigan University, is facing a disciplinary hearing for violating university policy governing distribution of materials, not providing his name to university personnel, and providing a "false identity" to university personnel.
This isn't the first time Lennox has had a run-in with the university. Last spring, the university forbade Lennox's group, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), from excluding as "members" people explicitly hostile to the organization's mission. The university relented after FIRE wrote a letter in defense of YAF's right to free association.
The current round of trouble with the university began a few months ago when Lennox formed a student group called Students Against Gary Peters (SAGP). Peters is a CMU professor running for Congress.
On October 8, 2007, Lennox and another member of SAGP distributed flyers outside the auditorium where Gary Peters and two other former Congressmen were slated to speak. Lennox was approached by Political Science Department Chairman Delbert Ringquist and verbally accused of "malicious libel" and threatened with a lawsuit. Ringquist ordered Lennox and the other student to cease distribution of the flyers. Lennox told him they were finished passing them out and sat in the auditorium to listen to the forum.
Lennox videotaped Peters on a few occasions on campus and attempted to get him to answer questions about his candidacy. Both videos are available on YouTube.com.
On October 15, 2007, Lennox filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for e-mails to and from Peters, Ringquist, Professor Joyce Baugh, Professor Larry Sych, and Dean Pamela Gates. Lennox also requested Internet usage and phone records for Peters. Serving the requests went off without incident except for Dean Gates who at first refused to accept the FOIA request until a CMU lawyer explained that the law required Gates to comply. Gates then became angry with Lennox and when Lennox tried to film her reaction, she tried to swat the camera out of his hand.
Later that afternoon, Dean of Students Bruce Roscoe informed Lennox that he was in violation of university policy and that he was prohibited from videotaping anyone anywhere on the CMU campus. Lennox filed a complaint with the ACLU of Michigan.
The next day, Lennox filed a complaint against Dean Gates with the school police, only to find that Gates had already filed a complaint against him. The school refused Lennox's request for an independent investigation by the state police. The county prosecutor did not press charges. CMU President Michael Rao asked the director of the Affirmative Action Office to investigate. Lennox refused to participate because of a conflict of interest since Dean Gates is an "affirmative action coordinator" for the Affirmative Action Office.
CMU spokesman Steve Smith alleged that Lennox had been "stalking" Professor Peters. Lennox claims that his grades have suffered considerably over the last few months from these professors but he cannot appeal through university channels since his appeals would have to go through Dean Gates and Professor Ringquist.
In late October, the story of Peters's candidacy and the altercation between Lennox and Dean Gates started getting press coverage. On October 26, the day news outlets ran an Associated Press story on the controversy, Tony Voisin, Director of the Office of Student Life and Assistant Dean of Students, notified Lennox that he was being charged with violating university policy regarding the flyer incident on October 8. Lennox hasn't been told who complained nor was he able to be part of the disciplinary hearing.
On October 23, Lennox passed out copies of "The Peters Report," the SAGP newsletter, in a campus building next to a few other student publications. He noticed a man confiscating the newsletters and approached him, inquiring as to his actions. The man claimed that they were placed in violation of CMU's distribution policy and asked for Lennox's name. Lennox asked that the man give his name first. The man refused. At an impasse, he eventually left.
The man, later identified as English professor Peter Koper, filed a complaint against Lennox with Voisin but could not identify Lennox by name. Voisin responded by e-mail with a picture of Lennox. Koper confirmed that that was the student he had met the night of October 23. Police generally use line-ups with at least a five-to-one ratio of known innocents to suspects so as not to lead the witness into false identification. Voisin went forward with the charges without alerting Lennox.
Several professors in the English Department exchanged e-mails on October 26 over the faculty listserv, some claiming to have consulted mental health experts who said Lennox was mentally unstable. Some speculated that he might be the next Virginia Tech-type shooter.
Voisin didn't notify Lennox of the three charges against him for the incident on October 23rd until November 27. On the same day, the ACLU of Michigan sent CMU a letter notifying them that their ban on videotaping on campus was unconstitutional.
Lennox requested his school records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The school postponed his disciplinary hearing until late January, but it was cancelled due to bad weather. Yesterday, Lennox filed a complaint under FERPA with the Department of Education against the faculty members responsible for the e-mails sent on October 26. His disciplinary hearing is currently being rescheduled.