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Michigan State University rapped on rights

A student leader at the institution faces possible suspension for circulating an email that has been dubbed "spam."

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A leader of Michigan State University's student government faces suspension from the state-supported institution for "spam" after she carefully selected and e-mailed about 8 percent of the school's faculty members encouraging them to express their views about changes to the freshman orientation and academic calendars. Student Kara Spencer, who faced a disciplinary hearing on December 2, 2008, has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

"If e-mailing faculty members with concerns about a university calendar is outside the parameters of acceptable speech at Michigan State, no student should feel safe contacting professors about any relevant matter of concern," Robert Shibley, FIRE's Vice President, said. "The difference between Spencer's message and a typical 'spam' e-mail is so obvious that it calls into question MSU's true motivation for silencing this student."

On September 4, 2008, MSU's University Committee on Academic Policy made recommendations challenging the MSU administration's plans to shorten MSU's Academic Calendar and Fall Welcome (freshman orientation) schedules, noting that any comments would need to be submitted by September 30.

Given the short time frame offered for discussion and the fact that the changes were highly controversial, members of the Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU) and the University Committee on Student Affairs (UCSA) held a meeting on September 11 to tackle the issue. UCSA members, including students, several faculty members, and several MSU administrators, then engaged in a cooperative e-mail discussion about the content and recipients of a coordinated response.

On September 14, Spencer notified the group that she would be sending her version of the group's response as "an informational email" in her own name. She noted that she had "compiled a database of all faculty on campus" for this purpose.

None of the faculty members or administrators involved in the discussion complained about this plan. According to Spencer, on or about September 15, she carefully selected about 391 faculty members out of MSU's approximately 5,000 faculty, and she e-mailed the 391 faculty members the letter that the group of students, faculty, and administrators had written.

The letter stated concerns about the short amount of time given to the MSU community to consider the changes, "which will greatly affect both faculty and students alike," and called for "an inclusive dialogue among members of the University community" prior to adoption of the changes. The letter added: "Given the immediacy of the situation, we request that any faculty wishing to be heard on this issue contact their Faculty Council representative or the Provost's office."

Shortly thereafter, Professor Katherine Gross complained about receiving this e-mail to Information Technology administrator John Gorentz. Gorentz forwarded the complaint to MSU Network Administrator Randall J. Hall. On September 16, Hall sent Spencer an e-mail summoning her to a mandatory meeting "for investigation" of her e-mail.

The next day, Hall alleged that Spencer had violated three MSU policies by sending what he called unauthorized "SPAM." Hall even suggested that all unsolicited e-mails, as well as junk mail, billboards, and posters, are "considered a disruption of the activities of the person receiving the email."

Spencer's ordeal has continued for over two months. After she requested a hearing before the MSU Student-Faculty Judiciary, FIRE wrote MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, calling on her to end the unconstitutional investigation of Spencer. MSU chose to proceed with the hearing, however, on December 2. The Judiciary's verdict is expected early next week.

"Threatening a senior member of the student government with suspension for sending noncommercial, relevant e-mails to faculty members is outrageous," Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, said. "As the Supreme Court held in Garrison v. Louisiana, 'speech concerning public affairs ... is the essence of self-government' and 'debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.' MSU is teaching students that they challenge the administration's plans at their peril."

According to its website, FIRE is a non-profit educational foundation that advocates civil liberties, especially on U.S. educational campuses. .

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