Unsolicited Bulk Email at Michigan State University

Recently, MSU student Kara Spencer organized an email campaign to contact nearly 400 Michigan State University faculty she thought would be sympathetic to her complaint about the university’s decision to shorten the semester by two days in spite of being told by an administrator that she would face disciplinary action for not getting prior approval to send out the bulk email.

She sent the email and after a Dec. 2 disciplinary hearing (where one of the charges against her – falsely representing/using the resources of a group – was dismissed) where she received a warning (instead of the suspension that was initially threatened).

Here’s her original email, and the complaint filed against her. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has taken up Spencer’s case and is arguing on her behalf (they have a ‘file’ open on their site where you can keep tabs on the developments). Fox News has seized a hold of the story (they love any excuse to beat up higher education).

As someone who works on the administration side of a higher education institution and who is an ardent advocate of free speech – I’m conflicted. I see the argument that Spencer should be allowed freedom of speech (especially since I don’t like how the university handled the decision; it didn’t allow sufficient time for students to comment on the change), but I also understand the pressure the administrators are under to protect both their network resources from misuse and their employees from being deluged by unsolicited emails.

My defense of the administration is that the right to free speech is not absolute and one needs to consider the larger ramifications of allowing unsolicited bulk email as well as the unrestricted use of campus networks and what precedents that sets. I would be interested to hear what FAIR thinks about some different scenarios or conditions:

  • Does MSU have the right to determine how its networks are used?
  • Does the method of communication used factor into the equation? For example, would Spencer’s right to free speech include the right to use MSU’s network to use a more intrusive method such as sending a bulk text message to the nearly 400 faculty on the list? What about faxes? What about robo-calls?
  • If the university has a spam filter in place that would block emails like this (sent to hundreds of recipients from a Gmail address) – would that constitute a violation of the student’s right to free speech?

In my opinion, Spencer would have been in the clear if she would have sent the email from off-campus (though she apparently used a personal Gmail account, it sounds like she used MSU’s network to access it and send the email). Unfortunately, though, she agreed to the school’s AUA and broke it of her own volition (despite being warned not to do so).

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