MSU has a lot of positive distinctions. It’s ranked 30th among public universities on the America’s Best Colleges list issued by U.S. News & World Report in 2009. It won the 2008 Presidential Award for General Community Service. It’s a leader in study abroad programs and campus sustainability. And it’s ranked fourth in American universities for producing Peace Corps volunteers.

An alcohol bottle remains after a lawful student assembly (photo credit: Emily Lawler).

In 2009 however, MSU received the somewhat less encouraging recognition of being named a “Red Alert” school on a list issued by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. According to FIRE’s Web site, schools on the list “have displayed a severe and ongoing disregard for the fundamental rights of their students or faculty members and are the ‘worst of the worst’ when it comes to liberty on campus.”

“I believe MSU does deserve this reputation and has a lot to improve upon in the area of free speech,” said Jordan Zammit, a political science freshman and the founder of MSU Sons of Liberty, a conservative organization he says advocates the freedoms and rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

FIRE’s mission statement says the organization’s purpose is “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.” They cite an incident involving ASMSU Associate Director Kara Spencer as the main reason for MSU place on the 2009 Red Alert list.

In September of 2008, Spencer sent out an email to 391 faculty members criticizing the proposed changes to fall semester and Fall Welcome. The international relations senior thought she was just doing her job as a member of student government. The MSU administration saw it differently – it charged her with violating an anti-spamming regulation and Spencer found herself facing possible suspension from the university.

“I wasn’t even using my MSU email. It was my private email and I emailed from home,” Spencer said. “The argument that the university made was that the email that I sent still had to travel through their network to reach faculty and staff, but that’s a pretty thin argument.”

She added that students often get emails from sites such as ANGEL that should theoretically violate the same regulation, which states that MSU has the ability to control bulk email. Bulk email is defined as “the transmission of an identical or substantially identical e-mail message within a 48-hour period from an internal user to more than 10 other internal users who have not elected to receive such e-mail.”

Both FIRE and Spencer considered the restriction on her emailing abilities a violation of freedom of speech. A public university’s prerogative to restrict first amendment rights of students has been debated in the courts over the years. In general, as a public institution, a university cannot make any rule restricting first amendment rights that is more strict than the government itself would be allowed to make.

According to MSU professor of law Kevin Saunders, the author of two books concerning first amendment rights, the government can limit those basic rights to some extent if the law or regulation is “content-neutral”, meaning it applies to all situations regardless of the type or source of the content.

A burned couch sits in the alley off of Collingwood, presumably after a student assembly turned unlawful (photo credit: Emily Lawler.)

“If they have to do with not the content of the speech, but how the speech is delivered [limitations are acceptable],” Saunders said. “The standard example of that is, no loudspeaker trucks in residential neighborhoods after say 10 o’clock at night – that has nothing to do with content, it’s just trying to keep neighborhoods quiet.”

Saunders said MSU’s bulk email regulations would probably be considered content-neutral and therefore valid in court. However, he added that this should only apply to people who send emails either using an MSU email address or a university ISP.

“If you’re home and your ISP is like Comcast and the university tries to discipline you for having sent emails, then that’s a concern,” Saunders said.

Since Spencer said she did email from her home with a private email address, she called the regulation under which disciplinary action was taken against her “absolutely unconstitutional” and added that although it has since been revised to be clearer, it is still flawed.

“I think there’s still a good argument to be made that the current policy is unconstitutional,” she said. “Trying to regulate how people have contact with one another is wrong.”

So is MSU generally respectful of students’ first amendment rights? Or does it deserve a place on the “Red Alert” list? There is no definitive answer to this question. Someone like Kara Spencer may say yes. The preacher who often stands outside of Wells Hall seems to be doing pretty well for himself – he might answer no.  Most students seem to get along just fine without ever noticing any restriction of their rights taking place. Communicative sciences and disorders sophomore Stephanie Dale said she has never seen evidence of MSU violating first amendment rights.

“Walking by Wells and seeing all those protests, I mean, they give them every right to say what they want and how they feel,” Dale said. “People post what they want, and we’ve got spray paint all over the place.”

Jordan Zammit has a different perspective. As the founder and president of Sons of Liberty, he said he ran into obstacles when trying to organize a recent speaking engagement. Controversial British politician Nick Griffin was scheduled to speak at MSU on February 18 about “how the fraud of man-made global warming is used by liberals to attack the sovereignty of nation-states,” according to a press release issued by Zammit. The event was cancelled because of circumstances unrelated to MSU, but Zammit said the university’s administration was not only unhelpful but obstructive during the planning process for the engagement.

“They purposefully tried to prevent my organization from hosting a prominent politician,” Zammit said. “They did this by not answering my phone calls and by not responding to my emails, by denying us free police protection even though protesters have a history of directing violence towards people at events, and by trying to get us to commit to paying for damage done to the room by violent protesters.”

Griffin has visited MSU once before in 2007, as a guest of MSU-YAF or Young Americans for Freedom, a group that was listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center but has not been active on campus recently. He had planned a speech about Islam as a threat to Western civilization, but was interrupted by enthusiastic protestors and forced to conduct a question and answer session instead.

Clearly, Griffin is a controversial figure. So is the MSU administration respecting first amendment rights by having allowed him to speak on campus at all as it did in 2007? Or is it, as Zammit states, ignoring those rights by making it difficult for him to appear here? There are two sides to this story, and neither is perfectly clear.

Criminal justice junior Kevin Fleury said he can understand both perspectives. He was a member of ASMSU when the Kara Spencer case took place and was a wary observer of MSU-YAF when it was still an active group on campus. Fleury said the charges against Spencer were a violation of her freedom of speech, but there he has seen other cases of MSU being extremely tolerant.

“Cedarfest specifically, when students are rioting and making fools of themselves and doing stupid things, I think that the police, which includes the university police…wait for as long as they can until intervening,” Fleury said. “And Young Americans for Freedom, which was essentially a hate group that was allowed to exist on campus, caused a lot of controversy, but I think the university didn’t want to censor the minority in that case.”

He added however, that he has seen members of faculty be unreceptive to the voices of students with legitimate concerns.

“I think that there are some administrators,” Fleury said, “that wake up and honestly think that they would have the best job in world if it weren’t for those darn students.”

As Fleury illustrates, both sides of the argument can be supported. For now, the university awaits its FIRE allegations to die out and Spencer’s continuing concerns to be addressed. Hopefully, the next time MSU earns a spot on a nationally recognized list, it will be as the best of the best rather than the worst of the worst.

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