Dispatches from the Creation Wars

More Free Speech Problems at MSU

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has released a report on a program at Michigan State for handling students who engage in unapproved speech. To call it appalling would be an understatement. The problem is a program called SAC, the Student Accountability in Community seminar. Students who violate the university’s speech code in some way are forced to attend SAC, at their own expense, or they are effectively thrown out of school.

According to the program’s materials, SAC is an “early intervention” for students who use such “power-and-control tactics” as “male/white privilege” and “obfuscation,” which the university cryptically defines as “any action of obscuring, concealing, or changing people’s perceptions that result in your advantage and/or another’s disadvantage.” Students can be required to attend SAC if they demonstrate what a judicial administrator arbitrarily deems aggressive behavior, past examples of which have included slamming a door during an argument or playing a practical joke. Students can also be required to attend SAC for engaging in various types of constitutionally protected speech, including “insulting instructors” or “making sexist, homophobic, or racist remarks at a meeting.” When participation in SAC is required, “non-compliance typically results in a hold being placed on the student’s account,” an action that leaves the student unable to register for classes and thus effectively expelled from the university. Students are required to pay the cost of the SAC sessions.


Because Michigan State is a public university, it is a government agency and is bound entirely by the first amendment prohibitions on restricting freedom of speech. The general rule is pretty simple: if you cannot be punished for saying it off campus, then you cannot be punished for saying it off campus. Can you imagine a state or Federal law that required citizens who said something a panel considered to be racist, sexist or homophobic in, say, a letter to the editor, an article on a webpage, or a post on a blog, to go to a reeducation program? It would be blatantly unconstitutional, and this rule at a public university is no less unconstitutional.

There are certainly circumstances where such a program might be appropriate, some of which are covered by the program’s objectives. According to the seminar’s materials, it is an “early intervention” aimed at those who exhibit “power and control tactics.” Those are defined as, “such things as coercion, threats, intimidation, economic abuse, violence, male/white privilege, using others, obfuscation and emotional abuse.” What a strange list.

What on earth is “obfuscation” doing on the list? And how on earth does one define “male/white privilege” or “using others”? Threats, intimidation and violence are already illegal, as they should be, and those things can be punished by a university or by legal authorities, including perhaps through requiring attendance at such a seminar (just as someone arrested for drunk driving can be required to attend alcohol counseling).

The problem is that the program can also be applied by the university to those who merely speak in ways that a judicial administrator does not approve of. For example, in their recent letter to the MSU president, FIRE quotes from the SAC brochure on some of the many situations in which a student might be required to attend the seminar:

According to the SAC brochure, “[e]xamples of situations that would generally be appropriate for SAC” include, among other things, “[h]umiliating a boyfriend or girlfriend,” “disrespecting other students’ academic freedom,” “[i]nsulting instructors or teaching assistants,” “making sexist, homophobic, or racist remarks at a meeting,” and, with regard to student organizations (which implies that entire student organizations may be forced to attend an SAC program), “failing to understand how members’ actions affects [sic] others.”…

Examples given of behavior that might get a student sentenced to mandatory SAC seminars include a girl slamming a door after a fight with her boyfriend, a student being rude to a dormitory receptionist, and a student being rude to a taxi driver.

And they point out that such a punishment for constitutionally protected speech, no matter how objectionable we might find it, is simply not legal:

Admirable or not, statements humiliating a significant other, criticisms of teachers, and even “sexist” remarks are clear instances of protected speech under the First Amendment, by which MSU is legally and morally bound. Indeed, this program violates MSU’s obligations under the federal constitution. The SAC program not only establishes a vague and overbroad speech code–like the code overturned in your own state in the landmark case Doe v. Michigan, 721 F.Supp. 852 (E.D. Mich. 1989)–but it also sets up an insidious system for enforcing it.

Doe v Michigan was a case filed by the ACLU against the speech code at the University of Michigan. That ruling should be binding upon Michigan State as well because it was issued in the same judicial district (the ruling was not appealed, so it is not more broadly applicable). Perhaps the worst thing about the program is pointed out in that letter as well:

After being shown the wheel and the list of definitions of negative behaviors (which include using “white privilege,” using “heterosexual privilege,” “any action that is perceived as having racial meaning,” or “obfuscation,” which it defines as “[a]ny action of obscuring, concealing, or changing people’s perceptions that result in your advantage and/or another’s disadvantage”), participants must then confess the negative types of power and control they exhibited during the reported incident.

Students may not deny or justify their behavior; rather, they are asked to identify specific alternative behaviors that would have been more desirable, using the “Equality Wheel.” This chart corresponds to the “Power and Control Wheel,” but categorizes acceptable ways of dealing with conflict. The list of “non-violent” approaches includes “Economic Partnership,” defined as “making money decisions together, making sure both partners benefit from financial and academic arrangements,” and “Respect,” defined as “listening to someone non-judgmentally,” “being emotionally affirming,” and “being a positive role model for children.” Surely, many might consider these positive attitudes, but it is not the role of state institutions to enforce conformity of belief on such personal issues.

And if you want a perfect example of academic doublespeak, you can do no better than this:

One of the two most chilling moments in the presentation occurred when an audience member asked if it was appropriate to constructively expel a student for being unwilling to take part in this kind of thought reform. Richard Shafer answered that he didn’t like that the audience member would characterize the SAC program procedures as telling students they had to attend SAC seminars. He reasoned that because the goal of the program was to increase accountability, students should recognize that they had the choice of going or being effectively expelled, but that was their choice to make. This was a stunning answer. Under no standard of fair dealing or law would this be considered a free choice, and Shafer’s answer to this question was the best demonstration of “obfuscation” the ASJA audience would see that day.

The second example, perhaps more disturbing, came when an audience member asked, “How do I deal with people with religious beliefs that ‘justify’ their anger?” Amazingly, Holly Rosen responded that “religious beliefs may be a form of obfuscation.” This was one of many responses that indicated that the hosts of the program seemed to believe that no outright expression of anger or hostility could be justified. This conceptualization of human behavior would utterly reject ideas like “righteous rage,” “just wars,” or even non-violent protest. Making such categorical assumptions about the nature of propriety and reality revealed the program to be shockingly narrow-minded and monoculturalist, in addition to being remarkably invasive and utterly unconstitutional.

Does one really need to ask whether those MSU students who recently engaged in violence and disruption of a conservative speaker on campus – pulling a fire alarm to disrupt the event, smashing camera equipment, keying cars and slashing tires of the event’s organizers – will be required to attend such an event? Not a chance. Those students, no matter how heinous their behavior, will be treated with kid gloves because they were “standing up to injustice” or some other excuse.

We have seen this sort of thing many, many times on campuses around the country. Like the recent situation at Boise State University where a conservative student group that put up a poster showing Che Gueverra and Ronald Reagan, with test saying that Gueverra’s ideology was responsible for the deaths of millions while Ronald Reagan’s policies had helped free some 400 million people from communist rule. The result? They were accused of “spreading hate”.

And when the leader of that group wrote a column in the school newspaper urging people to vote for a state amendment against gay marriage, he was likewise accused of spreading hate and a movement was started to have him removed from the student senate. Now I’m as big a supporter of gay marriage as you’ll ever find, but I simply will not tolerate attempts to silence the opposition like this. And this sort of thing happens far too often on college campuses, where a student advocating conservative views is brought up on charges of “hate speech” for advocating policies others don’t like. This is downright Orwellian and it must stop.

Comments

  1. #1 TheFallibleFiend
    December 18, 2006

    What a load of pseudointellectual stupidity. I’ve heard the term “white privilege” used several times by people on the radio. In every single case the speaker proved himself to be a complete idiot.

    MSU used to be a great school.

  2. #2 Miguelito
    December 18, 2006

    And how on earth does one define “male/white privilege”

    Pretty easily I think. If you’re male or white, you don’t have free-speech rights.

  3. #3 Brew
    December 18, 2006

    “Because Michigan State is a public university, it is a government agency and is bound entirely by the first amendment prohibitions on restricting freedom of speech.”

    I beg to differ on the premise that because it is a public institution is has to follow the 1st Amendment while private institutions do not. I say it is the obligation of ANY institution.

    I say this because I have a firm belief that Rights are unalienable and are thusly incapable to be given or signed away. That NO contract or agreement can be made that removes OUR unalienable Rights.

    So, in my view, it doesn’t matter if these universities are public or private. They still must follow the BOR.

    Brew
    http://www.politicalforums.net
    http://www.minarchy.com

  4. #4 mr.smith
    December 18, 2006

    “And when the leader of that group wrote a column in the school newspaper urging people to vote for a state amendment against gay marriage, he was likewise accused of spreading hate and a movement was started to have him removed from the student senate. Now I’m as big a supporter of gay marriage as you’ll ever find, but I simply will not tolerate attempts to silence the opposition like this.”

    Ed, as long as this is students criticizing their fellow student, what is the problem? Now if the university is objecting to what he says or trying to remove him from the senate, that’s a big problem. But this sounds like dissenting voices who want to remove someone who is supposed to be their representative. That’s just free speech and democracy. This is entirely different than storming the stage when someone is giving a speach you object to or screaming them down to the point that they can’t be heard. It sounds like you are objecting to people objecting to his message. I know that can’t be right, so what exactly am I missing here?

    The rest of your post is right on point.

  5. #5 David C. Brayton
    December 18, 2006

    Holy Toledo! (Several other not-so-nice words came to mind instead of Toledo.)

    Let me get this straight: being rude to a cab driver can get you expelled? Insulting a professor can get you expelled? Slamming a door after a fight with your girlfriend can get you expelled?

    Wow! Amazing. I wouldn’t have believed it unless I read it here.

    Rush Limbaugh, et al, complain about political correctness. After reading this, it seems that he was right.

    Truly Orwellian in every sense of the word.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    December 18, 2006

    Brew wrote:

    I beg to differ on the premise that because it is a public institution is has to follow the 1st Amendment while private institutions do not. I say it is the obligation of ANY institution.

    I say this because I have a firm belief that Rights are unalienable and are thusly incapable to be given or signed away. That NO contract or agreement can be made that removes OUR unalienable Rights.

    No, this is false. It has nothing to do with a contract or agreement, it has to do with property rights. A private college, just like a private home, can set its own rules and is not bound by the Constitution. Just as the first amendment does not protect your “right” to insult my mother in my home (I can throw your ass out if you do, whereas a government body could not), it likewise does not apply at a private college either.

  7. #7 AndyS
    December 18, 2006

    While I do agree that MSU’s rules in this area are insane in general, I’m not sure that blatant insults are protected speech. Maybe someone here can clarify.

    If a student insults a professor or another student in class, say they do so repeatedly and without provacation, isn’t it okay to throw them out? Does free speech mean that no civility can be required in a classroom situation in a public university? That would seem to be an absurd result.

  8. #8 Gretchen
    December 18, 2006

    If a student insults a professor or another student in class, say they do so repeatedly and without provacation, isn’t it okay to throw them out? Does free speech mean that no civility can be required in a classroom situation in a public university? That would seem to be an absurd result.

    Sure, they can be thrown out– just as public high school students can be thrown out of class. But they cannot, or should not at least, be required to attend a sensitivity training course at their own expense or else be expelled. The penalty for getting booted out of class due to your own rudeness is missing the instruction provided and thereby having your success in the course threatened…which is as it should be.

  9. #9 DuWayne
    December 18, 2006

    AndyS -
    I don’t think that a proff has to put up with insults in the classroom. Certainly not when they are disruptive to instruction time. But then, a proff doesn’t need to put up with any disruption of instruction, that would not be free speech, that would be infringing on the rights of everyone who has paid a ton of money to get an education.

  10. #10 TheFallibleFiend
    December 18, 2006

    I don’t have a problem with eliminating insults that are disruptive to the classroom. I don’t have a problem eliminating harrassment. I have a serious problem with vague wording like that mentioned by Ed above, to wit,

    ‘SAC is an “early intervention” for students who use such “power-and-control tactics” as “male/white privilege” and “obfuscation,” which the university cryptically defines as “any action of obscuring, concealing, or changing people’s perceptions that result in your advantage and/or another’s disadvantage.’

    This is pseudointellectual blather. It is indefensible. It is self-referential to the extent that it is an obfuscation.

  11. #11 Jason I.
    December 18, 2006

    which the university cryptically defines as “any action of obscuring, concealing, or changing people’s perceptions that result in your advantage and/or another’s disadvantage.”

    So, uh, lying to get a girl into bed is now punishable by mandatory attendance of this SAC seminar? I hope they have a full-time staff 24/7 for this thing.

  12. #12 Raging Bee
    December 18, 2006

    In addition to the sheer dishonesty and old-new-left daft silliness of all this, I’m struck by the cowardice: they can’t bring themselves to formally, explicitly expel students, so instead they shove them into an administrative limbo, such that they can pretend an offending student is still in school (and still paying tuition and other costs), without allowing him/her to actually do any sort of course-work until he/she takes their re-indoctrination course.

  13. #13 Jason I.
    December 18, 2006

    I don’t think it’s cowardice. They probably realize that if they actually tried to expel someone for slamming a door or “obfuscation”, they’d find themselves in a legal black hole that they’d never get out of.

  14. #14 Diego
    December 18, 2006

    I’m going to give MSU the benefit of doubt and that perhaps the policy came about from a specific incident. However, I agree that this new rule is overbearing, and it has the potential to punish students for disagreements in opinion. However, that is not to say priviledge does not exist. WASP/Male/Hetero priviledge is very real, and it would be nice if people volunteered for sensitivity training. Maybe they could learn a thing or two about what it is like to not have that priviledge, because being oblivious is also a priviledge. But MSU is wrong here and forcing SAC onto students as a punishment is overstepping the bounds.

  15. #15 entlord
    December 18, 2006

    Didn’t MSU have some problems a year or two back about entrance policies and affirmative action and a lawsuit alleging “reverse discrimination”? I continue to suspect that Politically Correct is more of a Limbaugh induced fever dream than reality and many of the really terrible examples that do exist are enacted by people who were opposed to them in the first place. The best way to get a rule bounced is to enact a version that is so draconian/silly/impossible to enforce that no one can obey it anyway.
    The way MSU lays out its attempt at making sure its students only have good thoughts is evidently based on the old honor courts, which some institutions still have. At any rate, I cannot imagine a professor having a student openly insult him during class and not immediately calling security to remove the student and then going to discuss things with the Dean. Rather than some silly class about feeling right and thinking right, the student would get booted, along with a notation in his records that he had been expelled. Too old school? At the very least, I would imagine the student would fail that class (unless he had a ton of Legacy Points) and maybe that department once word circulated around the department.

  16. #16 truth machine
    December 18, 2006

    They were accused of “spreading hate”…he was likewise accused of spreading hate and a movement was started to have him removed from the student senate.

    Aren’t such accusations and starting of movements protected activities?

    I simply will not tolerate attempts to silence the opposition like this.

    And how does your intolerance manifest itself? With accusations and the attempt to start movements?

    I detect a huge dollop of hypocrisy here. And what’s with the labeling in the comments of the MSU policies as “old-new-left” — there’s nothing “left” at all about suppression of speech; the policies are authoritarian, and thus right wing.

  17. #17 Ed Brayton
    December 18, 2006

    truthmachine wrote:

    Aren’t such accusations and starting of movements protected activities?

    Of course, but that wasn’t the point of my example. The point was that it’s quite common for even relatively mainstream political ideas to be labeled as “spreading hate” and thus to become subject to this kind of reeducation program.

    And how does your intolerance manifest itself? With accusations and the attempt to start movements?

    It will manifest itself by making efforts to get rid of oppressive policies like this one.

  18. #18 TheFallibleFiend
    December 19, 2006

    Every political group on campus is equal, but some are more equal than others.

  19. #19 RJC
    December 19, 2006

    White privilege, racism etc. are real problems that should be dealt with. This policy is clearly going too far though.

    The university should act in some ways like it’s an employer and the students are employees. They should be implementing the kinds of policies that employers have to implement against racial and sexual harassment. That means sometimes certain kinds of speech should be controlled.

    For example, it would make sense to have a policy that doesn’t allow grad students to put swastikas up in a lab, or engage in other kinds of speech that really are meant to intimidate and threaten fellow students.

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