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.