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Michigan State to student: Political e-mail is spam

Student Kara Spencer never thought she'd be brought up on disciplinary charges for contacting professors to protest plans for a shorter fall semester. A ruling is expected soon.

Most schools encourage students to become active in campus politics. Not Michigan State University, which has filed disciplinary charges against a student leader who sent e-mail criticizing an abbreviated fall semester.

Kara Spencer's encounter with MSU's disciplinary apparatus started in September, when the student government member began discussing the shortened fall 2009 schedule with a small group of faculty members and administrators. She followed up by contacting 391 faculty members by e-mail, saying that professors should be aware of the "burden for class schedules and syllabi" the change would involve.

Plant biology professor Katherine Gross, reportedly the lone faculty member irked by the e-mail message about 2009 schedules

The e-mail irked a single faculty member, Katherine Gross, who teaches plant biology. Gross complained to the university administrators, who summoned Spencer to a mandatory meeting and informed her that she would face disciplinary charges.

A formal letter listing Gross as a "possible witness" to the offense said that the e-mail violated university policies saying that students can use the network only for "authorized purposes."

"Students on campus have been supportive," Spencer told CNET News. So has the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a nonpartisan group in Philadelphia that urged MSU President Lou Anna Simon to halt the disciplinary process in advance of a hearing that was scheduled to take place on Tuesday.

It didn't work: The president rebuffed FIRE and the hearing took place as scheduled. A decision is expected soon.

"To date I have not received any notification from the judicial board regarding the case," Spencer said on Thursday. "The board may take up to seven days to render a ruling, so at this point I am just waiting for their notification."

Gross, the biology professor who complained, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

MSU's bulk e-mail rules say that e-mailing more than a "small set of recipients"--with the maximum number set at 30 people--is verboten. In a statement on Friday, MSU said: "It is clear that this policy is content neutral and is a set of procedural requirements that apply to all bulk use of the e-mail system, as opposed to a policy that makes distinctions based on the content of particular e-mails. It is our belief that such a policy does not impose unlawful restrictions on free speech." MSU declined to comment on specifics, citing privacy laws.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon, who rebuffed a request from a civil liberties group to throw out the case against the student leader.

If MSU were a private school, such strict limits would be a matter of its contract with students and faculty: objectionable and inconsistent with academic freedom, perhaps, but not necessarily illegal. But because MSU is a public school, it is legally obligated to provide students with due process rights and it must protect their free speech rights.

And that's what FIRE thinks has gone wrong with MSU's disciplinary prosecution of Spencer.

Adam Kissel, director of FIRE's individual rights defense program, believes this is the first time he's heard of antispam rules being applied this broadly on campus. "The rule should be: if it's not disruptive, then you can do it," he said.

"The question is: does bulk unsolicited e-mail count as inherently disruptive to the campus?" he said. "I would say no, it doesn't, especially when the message is something that's directly relevant to everything on campus."

FIRE's letter to MSU on November 26 calls on President Simon to halt the "erroneous prosecution of Kara Spencer, who has been under investigation for more than two months for her clearly protected expression. If e-mailing faculty members about common concerns is outside the parameters of acceptable speech at MSU, surely no member of the MSU community can feel safe contacting another about any relevant matter of concern. Is this truly the lesson that MSU wishes to teach to students who will soon be entering into civil society at large?"

If MSU does not back down, FIRE has the option to file a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court. Federal law allows private parties to recover attorneys' fees in a successful free speech case against a government or public university.