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It may be almost 2007, but it feels more like “1984” at Michigan State University. The university’s Student Accountability in Community Seminar (SAC) forces students whose speech or behavior is deemed unacceptable to undergo ideological reeducation at their own expense. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is challenging Michigan State to dismantle this unconstitutional program, which presents a profound threat to both freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.
“Michigan State’s SAC program is simply one of the most invasive attempts at reeducation that FIRE has ever seen, yet it has been allowed to exist at the university for years,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “As bad as it is to tell citizens in a free society what they can’t say, it is even worse to tell them what they must say. Michigan State’s program is an immoral and unconstitutional program of compelled speech, blatant thought reform, and pseudo-psychology.”
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.
Once in the program, students are instructed to answer a series of written questionnaires. In their answers, students must specifically describe how they are taking “full responsibility” for their offensive behavior and must do so using language that the director of the session deems acceptable. Most students will be asked to fill out this questionnaire multiple times, slowly inching closer to what administrators deem to be “correct” responses.
In a letter on November 20, 2006 to Michigan State President Lou Anna K. Simon, FIRE pointed out the stark contradiction between the SAC program and the values of a free society: “[A]t the heart of all concepts relating to freedom of the mind is a recognition of our own limitations — like us, those in power are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, and therefore have no right to dictate to others what their deepest personal beliefs must be. Concern for free speech and freedom of conscience is rooted in the wisdom of humility and restraint. The SAC program, which presumes to show students the specific ideological assumptions they need to be better people, crosses the boundary from punishment into invasive and immoral thought reform. We can think of no way in which the SAC program can be maintained consistent with the ideals of a free society.”
FIRE’s letter to President Simon also underscored Michigan State’s legal obligation to abide by the First Amendment. FIRE reminded her of the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), a case decided in the midst of World War II that remains the law of the land. Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the Court, declared, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Michigan State has informed FIRE that it will be reviewing the SAC program, but FIRE is calling for nothing less than its total dismantling.
“Michigan State’s SAC program shows a breathtaking lack of respect for individual dignity and autonomy. I urge anyone who cares about the rights of students and the sanctity of private conscience to take a long, hard look at the SAC program’s materials,” Lukianoff said.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Michigan State University and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
(Posted on December 14, 2006)