FIRE rates MSU in Top 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech

FIRE rates MSU in Top 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech

(Photo credit: Kaleigh Robichaud)

When MSU student Kara Spencer emailed a group of faculty protesting a looming change in the academic calendar, she never thought it would spark a university investigation against her. She also never thought her name would still be in the national media three years later, or that her case would become an organization’s symbol of alleged stifling of first amendment rights on the MSU campus.

On Jan. 27, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) President Greg Lukianoff listed MSU in his “Top 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” blog on the Huffington Post website, citing Spencer’s altercation with the university and administrators’ following actions as grounds for its inclusion. FIRE is a national, non-profit watchdog organization whose mission is to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.” Since its posting, the entry has garnered over 450 comments and references in at least 21 other articles.

MSU professionals reject the validity of FIRE’s list, saying the list is backed with weak data and false claims.

The ranking is FIRE’s latest of several public blows against MSU over the last five years, highlighting a history of discontent from a civil liberties group who says policies here severely endanger students’ constitutional rights.

The Catalyst

It all started with an email. In 2008 Kara Spencer, a returning adult student who is now a senior, sent a message to a group of faculty voicing opposition to a proposal issued by the Office of the Provost. The proposal, which was later enacted, shortened the start of the academic calendar by shaving the number of days in welcome week.

“That was undertaken, many people felt, without an appropriate process,” Spencer said.

Spencer said she handpicked the email lists, which included deans, tenured faculty and faculty in leadership positions. The series of emails were broken up by department, and the total number made up about 5 percent of the faculty on campus, she said. Spencer said she used a personal email address and sent the messages from her personal computer. The next day she received a response email, but not the kind she expected. It was a representative from Academic Technology Services (ATS), notifying her they had opened a formal investigation against her. Immediately, she picked up the phone.

“I didn’t really apologize—I disagreed with him,” Spencer said. “He pointed out to me that under the current policy I would submit my email for review to the university, and it could then be sent out. My position was that’s censorship. If you’re reviewing it for content, it’s censorship.”

Spencer was eventually found guilty of violating MSU’s bulk email policy in a judicial hearing. FIRE, in addition to 12 other civil liberties groups, reacted by writing a letter to the university. The policy itself, they said, was “constitutionally suspect,” by putting “arbitrary limits” on political speech. However, MSU didn’t budge until the Electronic Freedom Foundation, one of the civil liberties groups who signed the letter, pursued a lawsuit. The university then erased the warning from her record and a revised, supposedly more defined version of the bulk email was enacted in May 2009.

But it wasn’t good enough. Not for Spencer, nor for FIRE. While the other watchdog groups who signed the letter appear to have faded away in the publicity battle against the university since the policy’s reform, FIRE is still vocal over two years later, continuing to use Spencer’s case as the focal point for their accusations against MSU— an institution they maintain is among the worst in the country for student rights.

A Public Indictment

FIRE’s grievances against MSU aren’t just about what happened in the past. Moreover, the organization says they are concerned about history repeating itself— a policy similar to the one that Spencer was found guilty under still lingers in university handbooks.

FIRE has used Spencer’s case as the basis of their campaign against MSU for the last three years, most recently citing it as reason for the university’s inclusion on their “Top 12 Worst College of Free Speech” list. While they haven’t seen a case from MSU since Spencer’s in 2008, FIRE’s complaints against MSU are almost entirely rooted in the university’s bulk email policy, which FIRE maintains is still intrusive after being revised in 2009. The policy defines bulk e-email as sending an identical message to more than 10 other internal users within a 48-hour period.

Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy for FIRE, said Spencer’s case illustrates that this policy can be, and has been, abused by administrators to silence free speech.

(Photo credit: Emily Lawler)

“Kara Spencer being issued a warning tells a lot of folks that universities are not shy about using what would appear to be benign policies to silence speech they don’t want to hear,” said Creeley.

Though Spencer was given the least severe punishment in the MSU judicial system, Creeley said it is still a severe violation of first amendment rights.

“It starts with the little abuses and balloons into something bigger,” he said.

But MSU administrators are holding their ground, maintaining that the bulk email policy does not infringe on first amendment rights.

“The policy does not infringe on free speech. In the age of social networking and the web, email is a remarkably inefficient means by which to express and spread ideas; people in the MSU community have much more effective alternatives available to them,” David Gift, Vice Provost of Libraries, Computing and Technology said in an email.

Gift said that ATS only investigates possible infringements of the bulk email policy when one of the recipients files a complaint. He challenges FIRE’s assertion in the Huffington Post article that Spencer’s email list was “carefully selected.”

“This is simply untrue,” Gift said. “One or more recipients complained about getting the message and the sender refused to stop sending the emails.”

But the answer may not be as clear-cut. Frank Ravitch, a professor at the MSU College of Law who specializes in first amendment law, said that while he sees eye to eye with FIRE in regard to Spencer’s case and the bulk-email policy, their rankings are another issue entirely—inane, indefensible and a disservice to the public.

“What this ranking seems to be saying is one incredibly stupid policy and one extremely bad application of that policy will put a university in the top 12, even as opposed to universities who have hundreds of instances a year that may not be as well publicized,” Ravitch said. “It’s one thing to say the university has a draconian email policy, but that doesn’t mean the university as a whole is bad with free speech.”

He challenges the fundamental principle of the “Top 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list, including MSU’s placement on it. Ravitch said one isolated issue under one flawed policy is not enough to brand an entire institution as a continuous violator of first amendment rights.

“There’s so much speech on any university campus, you’ve got to look at it holistically,” Ravitch said.

Even so, he said that MSU still violated Spencer’s free speech rights in 2008.

“I think what they did to Kara Spencer is insanely wrong and unconstitutional,” Ravitch said. “It strikes me that by the vagueness of the email policy, there is a reason for FIRE to be concerned with the email policy at MSU.”

Joe Duffy, president of the MSU College Democrats, said his experience with first amendment rights on campus has been positive, even with web-related instances. He said his group has not faced speech interference even when directly attacking administrative positions.

“There have been instances where we’ve been critical of the administration and critical of institutions here on campus, but we haven’t seen any disciplinary consequences, or even the threat of those disciplinary consequences,” Duffy said.

Among other things, the MSU College Democrats organized two on-campus demonstrations last year, both of which ran without interference from university officials, Duffy said.

Ravitch said that to his knowledge MSU has a relatively good speech record compared to other universities. Without a trove of data collected from representatives on every campus, he said, labeling universities cannot be done accurately. He said that while he believes FIRE’s overall mission is beneficial, he doesn’t know of any other watchdog group that compiles a ranking.

“It’s sad that they’re playing fast and loose with information to defend free speech,” Ravitch said.

And indeed, FIRE says MSU’s place on their Red Alert list and inclusion on their “Top 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list is entirely based on the language of the bulk email policy.

“When we’ve seen that policy utilized to punish students for their speech, we think that is certainly enough justification for ranking a school among the worst violators in the country,” Creeley said. “As far as a quantitative accounting of why one school is worse than another school, that doesn’t exist. All we know is that MSU has consistently refused to account for its mistakes.”

Creeley said that considering the organization’s mission and large volume of casework they receive each year, FIRE’s seven attorneys are experts in this particular area and are qualified to compose such a ranking. From their headquarters in downtown Philadelphia and office in New York City, FIRE’s 17-person staff receives hundreds of cases per year related to student rights on college campuses, he said.

He said the list was not intended to be a mass scientific equation; instead a display of particular schools designed to illustrate the broader problem of free speech abuse on college campuses.

One main difference between MSU and other universities FIRE evaluates, Creeley said, is that MSU has shown a distinct stubbornness to work with them. Nearly every other university will at least engage in an open dialogue, he said, while MSU has refused to discuss the matter any further.

Administrators from the Office of the Vice President for Student affairs and Services, who responded to FIRE’s allegations in the past, could not be reached for comment.

Gift said there has been no controversy, at least within the university, about the bulk email policy since Spencer’s case.

“No additional people from within the MSU community have expressed concern about the policy, and many have expressed appreciation for its intended effects,” Gift said.

FIRE released a report this year that rated 390 colleges and universities across the United States, identifying 261 “red light,” 107 “yellow light” and 12 “green light” schools. Ten others were identified, but exempt from evaluation. Red light schools signal that the university has at least one policy that restricts free speech in its language, while a yellow light schools signals at least one ambiguous policy that could be applied to squelch protected speech. Green light schools hold no written policies deemed as a threat to free speech. Of the 12 Michigan universities rated by FIRE, MSU is one of two yellow lights —all the rest are red. According to the report, FIRE chooses which schools to evaluate partially based on U.S. News and World Report rankings.

Turning Up The Volume

While MSU administrators have faced public pressure from FIRE since 2006, the group’s cries of injustice have intensified this year. Also in January, FIRE tried to rent electronic billboard space on 111 N. Harrision Rd., a stone’s throw from the Michigan Ave. intersection, to display an image of the MSU logo with “censored” rubber stamped over it. But the advertisement never saw the light of day because the private company who owns the space rejected FIRE’s offer, according to the FIRE website. On the eve of the fall 2010 semester, FIRE ran a full-page advertisement in U.S. News & World Report magazine that featured MSU on their Red Alert list—a wall of shame reserved for universities that display a “severe and ongoing disregard for the fundamental rights of their students and professors.” The advertisement, which ran next to the magazine’s top 100 university rankings, says the six schools on the list are the “worst of the worst” in the nation regarding campus liberties and cautions prospective students to “think twice” before applying. MSU was first placed on the Red Alert list in 2009 following FIRE’s involvement with Spencer’s email case. FIRE began contacting MSU in 2006, asking the university to remove a violence prevention program that they claimed infringed on protected speech under the first amendment.  MSU ended the program in 2007.

Other universities on the “Top 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list have already buckled under the pressure. The day after the list was published, the Huffington Post put up a blog entry by Syracuse Vice Chancellor and Provost Eric F. Spina, who explained the university’s reasoning for charging a law student for “false attacks” in his blog. Syracuse dropped the charges against the student less than a week later. About two weeks after the list was published, University of Massachusetts Amherst loosened its policy on student rallies, though FIRE says it is still not up to their standards.

Meanwhile, MSU administrators have remained stoic and firm. While not responding directly to FIRE’s complaints publicly or privately, they maintain the part of the email policy FIRE questions does not violate free speech rights, signaling the university will not give in to the organization’s demands. The last contact the university made with FIRE was over a year ago when President Lou Anna K. Simon sent a letter refuting their allegations that the email policy snuffed students’ first amendment rights. MSU administrators have kept silent through the latest swell of criticisms—even though FIRE has made clear they will not quiet anytime soon.

Even after nearly three years of controversy surrounding her case, Spencer is still finishing up her degree at MSU, and is employed as Association Director for ASMSU in a spacious office on the third floor of the student services building. She said transferring to a different university wasn’t a solution in her eyes—she would rather work to make the institution better.

Overall, Spencer said she is satisfied with FIRE’s handling of her case, crediting them with leading the opposition that ultimately lead to the repeal of her punishment. While she doesn’t want to personally remain vocal about her case, she said she understands why FIRE uses it to contextualize the ongoing problem.

“My personal wish is to not appear in the press connected with this,” said Spencer. “But I understand why it continues to be brought up since the policy has not been corrected.”

Until the policy is amended, MSU will likely remain under FIRE’s scrutiny.

“The big problem is that the university has not corrected the specific policy used to cover Kara Spencer,” Creeley said. “That’s really it.”

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Student Greenhouse Project Brings New Meaning to Garden Culture

Student Greenhouse Project Brings New Meaning to Garden Culture

Student Greenhouse project pushes for bigger biodome on campus. (Photo credit: Gennafer Musial)

Between Farm Lane and Shaw Hall there is a parking lot, not much different than any other. But for the past decade, one student environmental group has been pushing for a green shift there—one that is incomparable to any other in campus history.

Going on its tenth year at Michigan State University, the Student Greenhouse Project defines itself by a single goal: to construct a 60-foot tall biodome on campus, creating something close to the effect of an indoor rainforest. The plan calls for a hemispherical dome that would house a year-round tropical environment, complete with a 13-foot waterfall, performance stage, study lounge, and possibly even wildlife like birds and fish. Project members have attempted to leave no stone unturned in the planning, accounting for big issues like site location, as well as small ones like nighttime lighting and hours of operation.

But there’s a lot that’s still uncertain. Though the group has faced its share of hurdles in the past, members insist they are continuing to make progress and will see the structure built in the future, though many vital details, like a projected completion date and who will fund the dome’s roughly $2.5 million construction fee, are still painfully unclear.

A not-so-humble beginning

Though the idea of an on campus biodome may initially seem outlandish to some, the concept is nothing new. The MSU campus was once home to a 22,000 square foot, three-climate greenhouse—about twice the floor space of what the Student Greenhouse project is proposing for the new structure. The uses were also similar to the new plan. The old greenhouse catered to student events like small concerts and poetry readings, as well as tours from elementary schools and year-round visits from community members. Sparrow hospital even used the facility for medical therapy, taking heart patients on health walks through the greenhouse.

But the facility, built in the 1920s’ for the horticulture department, was old and slowly falling apart. In 1997, the administration announced plans to demolish the greenhouse, sparking an outcry from students and community members. MSU administrators agreed to take part a public forum meeting that was arranged by the Student Environmental Action Coalition in an attempt to reach a consensus between the two parties. According to members of the then-future Student Greenhouse Project who attended the meeting, the public response was overwhelming. The room was filled to capacity, and the hallway was flooded with people there to support saving the existing greenhouse.

The result, however, wasn’t what they had hoped. The administration ultimately reached the conclusion that the existing greenhouse was unsalvageable and needed to be demolished, promising to replace it with a new greenhouse structure in the future.

But the question of what to do with the existing plants in the greenhouse still remained. At the time, administrators assured those at the meeting that at least 80 percent of the plants would be saved. But Phil Lamoureux, the Student Greenhouse Project Director who works as a research assistant in Zoology, says he witnessed a far different scene on demolition day.

“It was really the reverse. Twenty percent of the plants were saved, 80 percent were disposed of,” said Lamoureux.

He watched as dozens, possibly hundreds of plants were torn from their habitat, forming mountains in the dumpsters outside.

After the demolition, with the majority of the plants thrown out, the greenhouse space near Old Horticulture was about one tenth the size of what it used to be. These remaining structures are still there to this day. The few salvaged plants were shipped to other buildings around campus, like Agriculture Hall, where plants from the old greenhouse still decorate the building’s atrium. Others were given to away to graduate students within the department and sold to the general public.

For Lamoureux, witnessing the administration go back on their word compelled him to hold the them accountable for the second promise made at the meeting—to eventually construct a replacement for the greenhouse they destroyed.

Moving Forward

Today, the people who flooded the meeting room over a decade ago are nowhere to be found. Lamoureux is the only one left. At the Student Greenhouse Project’s first meeting this semester only two new freshmen came, bringing the attendance to a grand total of six, including Lamoureux. Besides those two, the other four are longstanding officers who brunt all of the project’s heavy lifting.

But ten years without any tangible results means members must have a great deal of faith, and even more stamina. One of the new freshmen openly expressed concern about working on the project her entire undergraduate career without seeing the end result.

“You mean I could work four years at this and not see anything done?” she asked the club leaders.

According to Vice President Hannah Sumroo, a landscape architecture junior, it’s a response they hear all too often.

It’s definitely not an instant-gratification kind of group,” Sumroo said. “Usually when they join any sort of activist group, they want to see results within the four years or so that they’re here.”

While low membership is an issue that the Project continually struggles with, it’s not all that unusual. Across the board campus environmental organizations have a relatively low turnout in comparison to other groups. Eco President Kathleen Peshek, a zoology senior, says the reason is simple: it’s easy to get people excited about a cause, but almost impossible to get them to donate enough time and energy to see results.

“Finding people to get active on the issues in hard to come by,” she said. “Every environmental group has trouble with that.”

Eco, which focuses mostly on green education and sustainability, is also celebrating its decade anniversary this year. Though they now focus on awareness events and fundraising for nationally based causes, in its early days the club played a vital role in the birth of the first campus recycling program, which later matured into more comprehensive programs like the “Be Spartan Green” initiative.

In contrast to the Student Greenhouse Project, they boast one of the highest membership rates of any campus environmental group. About 20 members consistently attend meetings, while around 10 usually help with projects. Both Peshek and Lamoureux cite this difference in the nature of the work between the two organizations.

“You see the benefits of what you’re doing and I’m sure that keeps people in,” said Peshek.

The short life span and more manageable targets of Eco projects have greater potential to keep up moral among club members, and the variety of projects tend to hold their attention more easily. The variety also appeals to a wider base of students, whereas Student Greenhouse Project members say it takes a specific kind of environmentalist to embrace their dynamic.

“Over the years I’m very surprised to find the people who have church background and so forth have a long view of things,” Lamoureux said. “It’s kind of surprising because when it comes to the liberal left environmental folks, we get some of the more traditional folks in a lot of cases.”

While the Student Greenhouse Project seeks out those who have a long-term vision, Eco thrives on members who strike a faster paced chord.

“We provide activists an opportunity to really be active,” said Peshek.

Not having enough members can hurt an organization’s effectiveness, especially if they are a cause looking for action. Despite his adamancy that the project is still progressing to some extent, Lamoureux admits things might move faster if they had greater numbers.

“If we had 50-100 active people the university would be wowed,” he said. “The administration has their finger on that pulse.”

Peshek agrees. “I think student support is a huge thing,” she said. “In terms of Eco I think that’s why we’ve been so successful in the past.”

The small circle of Student Greenhouse Project members are making due with what the have, trying to accomplish their goal almost completely through the inner workings of the administration. This approach has proved to at least be moving the project along, even if just baby steps at a time.

(Photo credit: Gennafer Musial)

The group’s current focus, though it has been moving at a snail’s pace, is one of their most important steps forward. After meeting with project members, President Simon mandated that the club formulate a feasibility survey in order to scientifically determine the most important uses of the greenhouse. It’s an ongoing project, and members are continuing to hand them out to faculty members to give feedback on how the plan could help the curriculum and students in their respective department. A side bonus of the survey, besides advancing their mission on paper, is that it inherently raises awareness. The fact the president mandated it also plays a role in convincing people that the group’s goal is actually attainable.

The more people think it will happen, the more likely they will be to support it,” said Sumroo. “It’s like a domino effect.”

The faculty evaluation is just the tip of the iceberg. After those are done, they plan to spread the survey to relevant businesses and non-profit organizations they see as potential donors. This will allow them to provide input on the dome’s design before potentially extending an offer. Endorsements from a plethora of businesses and non-profits would also build the Project’s credentials in the eyes of corporations who might be interested in making a large donation. Theoretically, this outward spiral of the feasibility survey would eventually result in a consensus within the university and among donors funding the construction. With this support they Project’s could give their final pitch to the MSU Board of Trustees, who hold power to authorize the dome’s construction.

But so far the spiral has moved at a crawl, as it has taken project members months, sometimes over a year, to land meetings with administrators. The first meeting with President Simon happened five years ago, and after that it took over a year to meet with other necessary administrators before they could begin the survey. Since then, the faculty data has been slowly accumulating for the last three years. It is not clear when enough will be compiled, or when they will be able to move on to the next portion of the survey. As for the timeline of the entire project, no one can be certain.

“It’s already about twice as long as what I expected,” said Lamoureux.

He likened the process of meeting with administrators to “a glacier playing badminton.”

While dealing with the intricacies, the group has still tried engage the campus community in their mission; an effort that has had mixed effects. They won best homecoming float last year for their earth friendly, zero emission float that consisted of the members carrying a cardboard structure. Every year they bring a scaled model of the dome, complete with mossy turf and running water, to Sparticipation for freshmen to see. Still, events like these have yielded them only occasional member or two, if they’re lucky—hardly a worthy investment, especially when it takes five hours to set up the model.

But even more strangely, not even other environmental organizations seem to know much about the Student Greenhouse Project, despite their promotional events. Horticulture junior and Horticulture Club Vice President Jackie Grow said the Student Greenhouse Project is little known to neither her nor many others in the club beyond simple name recognition, though she thought the dome could present good opportunities for her fellow members if it were built.

Peshek thinks the club hasn’t been detailed enough in their marketing of the project to the environmental community.

“I think they’re environmental but I don’t think they’re marketing in a way that makes them serious,” she said. “They (other campus environmentalists) like the idea, but don’t see how it’s going to be built.”

But the members of the Student Greenhouse Project plan to keep doing what they’ve always done: stay persistent through all the kinks and set backs and keep on track, holding faith that it will all come together in the end.

“I’m a little bit frustrated, but I keep reminding myself that things don’t get done quickly when you are dealing with any kind of bureaucracy,” said Sumroo. “You have to have patience if you want to see something fulfilling get done.”

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