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Censorship Education Spam

Student Faces Suspension For Spamming Profs 516

Posted by kdawson
from the how-free-the-speech dept.
edmicman sends word of a Fox News report about a Michigan State University student who is facing suspension for bulk emailing a number of professors at the university about a proposed change to the school calendar — an e-mail that the university is labeling spam. The article contains links to a copy of the original email, the allegations against the student, and the university's Email Acceptable Use Policy. The student, Kara Spencer, asked a Philadelphia rights organization, FIRE, to get involved. The article quotes the FIRE defense program director: "The fact that MSU is considering punishment of Spencer simply for exercising her right to contact selected faculty members by e-mail shows a disturbing disregard for students' freedom of expression. ... Threatening a member of the student government with suspension for sending relevant, timely e-mails to faculty members is outrageous." Spencer is awaiting the school's judgement after a hearing, and vows to take to the courts if suspended.
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Student Faces Suspension For Spamming Profs

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  • Is it just me (Score:4, Insightful)

    by pwizard2 (920421) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:41PM (#26050131)
    or does anyone else think that universities are treating students more and more like cattle these days? It's as if the concept of helping students goes flying out the window after the university takes their money.
  • by zindorsky (710179) <zindorsky@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:45PM (#26050195)
    The crux of the issue is of course what you mean by spam. The best definition I've seen is: bulk, unsolicated commercial communications. (Due I think to Brad Templeton.) In this particular case the commercial aspect is missing, so this is not spam. This tendency to label of anything you don't like as either "spam" or "terrorism" is getting pretty tiresome.
  • by Strange Ranger (454494) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:48PM (#26050241)
    I don't think any spam filter on earth would identify her email as spam.

    It seems almost obvious that she's being prosecuted simply because she made the provost look stupid.
    If any student can use mailing lists like this to challenge the provost so effectively... imagine the mayhem!! /sarcasm
  • by CannonballHead (842625) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:49PM (#26050247)

    I don't understand the free speech thing. No, it's not SPAM. Whether or not she actually abused the policy is up for someone else to decide, not me. But what is all this talk about free speech? Since when does freedom of speech mean you can break a the rules you agreed (I assume you have to agree to abide by them in order to be accepted into the school) to follow?

    If she actually broke the policy, then the agreed-to consequences for it should happen. If she didn't, the school is being stupid, and the SCHOOL should face consequences. But this doesn't have to do with "freedom of speech."

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by digitalunity (19107) <digitalunityNO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:49PM (#26050255) Homepage

    No that would be ineffective. Clearly the proper course of action is to contact the media so millions of uninvolved strangers can mock the university for such stupefying misapplication of policy.

    Interestingly, it seems as a student government representative she was fulfilling her duties by attempting to negotiate change between students and faculty. Her email was well written, clear and concise.

    I fail to see how the university can justify any reprisal.

  • Because in the US (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:52PM (#26050297)

    It is legally much easier to regulate commercial speech. If you want any sort of anti-spam law, your best bet is there.

  • by Xcott Craver (615642) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:54PM (#26050343)

    It sounds like the professors are more butthurt she got their email addresses than interested in responding to the concern she expressed.

    As a professor, I doubt it: most of us couldn't care less if we get one more unsolicited email from a student.

    More likely she is the victim of some jobsworth in an administrative office who was on the mailing list and has nothing more important to do.

  • by Bieeanda (961632) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:55PM (#26050351)
    The most basic answer is that we're not still back in the day on Usenet. Word meaning is fluid, especially when it comes to slang. Cross-posting is more difficult in e-mail and on forums these days, than it used to be on Usenet with some news clients, and so those elements of the definition have become archaic. People use the term 'spam' in the context of unsolicited mail because that's the only context they have for it.
  • by Uberbah (647458) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:59PM (#26050433)

    Spam is unsolicited bulk email, regardless of whether or not it is well written, relevant, or reasonable.

    Then the student can counter-sue if the University ever her sent her spam over an upcoming basketball game, art exhibit, Last Lecture speech, etc.

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:07PM (#26050557)

    I fail to see how the university can justify any reprisal.

    She was already informed that she had violated policy, and she refused to change that.

    Civil disobedience is fine, IMO. Have at it, but don't come blubbering when Mr. Consequence arrives to the party.

  • by clone53421 (1310749) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:08PM (#26050561) Journal

    I thought that too, at first, but then I noticed in TFA that her e-mail was not informative but rather dissension...

    On Sept. 15, Kara Spencer, a senior and the associated students director at MSU, sent a letter to 391 university professors speaking out against a proposal from the Provost to shorten the fall semester by two days and to shorten Fall Welcome, reducing the amount of time new students would have to adjust to college living.

    Probably that falls under "personal purposes" or "political statements or purposes", both of which purposes are explicitly prohibited in the document from which you quoted.

  • by maillemaker (924053) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:09PM (#26050573)

    If a "network administrator" told me I could not email all the faculty and staff at a university I was paying to attend concerning a change in university policy that affects everyone, I'd tell them to go piss up a rope, too.

  • by MacDork (560499) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:13PM (#26050625) Journal

    So why do so many of us nowadays seem to equate spam with only 'unsolicited commercial e-mail'? In my mind, spam is any piece of unwanted bulk mail, whether it is 'commercial' in nature or not.

    "I didn't want to read that. You just spammed me." Wow... we've certainly come a long way from "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

  • by clone53421 (1310749) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:19PM (#26050719) Journal

    She wasn't e-mailing them about "a change in university policy that affects everyone". She was e-mailing them about why said change was a Bad Idea(TM), and apparently they didn't care to read her editorial column.

  • by Puls4r (724907) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:19PM (#26050725)
    Perhaps that was the case. I've been involved in a few of these "power" struggles. Being part of a large organization myself, I'll venture a guess that the policy that she was told to follow was so lengthy and political that it would have resulted in: A. No one EVER getting the email B. The email not getting out in time C. The email getting "editted" or "changed" so it didn't have it's desired effect. If it's anything like what I tend to be involved with, the so-called "policy" in place is specifically there to prevent you from contact anyone of importance - not to facilitate it. It's a matter of the so-called "powerful" not wanting to deal with the lesser folk. Many profs I've dealth with in college were like that: they would become very upset if questioned.
  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:3, Insightful)

    by stewbacca (1033764) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:22PM (#26050763)
    It isn't unconstitutional until a judge rules it to be. An opinion blog or forum opinion does not determine constitutionality. Otherwise, I agree with their assessment...if this were challenged in a constitutional court, it would probably be found to be unconstitutional ;-)
  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by moderatorrater (1095745) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:23PM (#26050779)

    Civil disobedience is fine, IMO. Have at it, but don't come blubbering when Mr. Consequence arrives to the party.

    I thought that was the point of civil disobedience, that you showed the world the injustice by suffering through the situation in a more public way.

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bigstrat2003 (1058574) * on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:27PM (#26050837)

    An opinion blog or forum opinion does not determine constitutionality.

    <nitpick>

    Not so. Anyone can determine constitutionality by examining a law, and the constitution, and telling you whether or not it violates the constitution. Now, that won't save your ass in court, but to say that the only valid judge of constitutionality is the courts is not only wrong, but against the spirit in which our nation was founded (that the people should keep the government in check).

    </nitpick>

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:28PM (#26050841)

    Um, what?

    The whole point of civil disobedience is to draw the consequences onto yourself and bring the issue to light so it can be stepped on and killed. The "blubbering" - as you so childishly put it - is directed at the original wrong, not the consequence! It's part of the process.

  • That's stupid. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:28PM (#26050847)

    I'm really sick of replies like this:

    Civil disobedience is fine, IMO. Have at it, but don't come blubbering when Mr. Consequence arrives to the party.

    This is a canned comment that tools make on any given story about someone standing up to establishment stupidity. This is the same attitude that southerners commonly took towards blacks protesting fucked up laws. Now, I'm not saying that her cause is anywhere near the same level of fighting jim crow and southern racism in general, BUT, if you look at how civil disobediance in the south(and elsewhere) actually works, you'll see that the "blubbering" about the consquences IS PART OF IT. THAT'S HOW CHANGE IS ACHIEVED AGAINST STUPID POLICIES.

    You have to not only disobey stupid policies, but then you have to whine bitch and moan about the consequences it if you want them changed and if you want a just resolution. THAT'S PART OF THE PROCESS OF CIVIL DISOBEDIANCE. You don't do that last part, you end up a door mat of the system, rather than someone who forces it to change.

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:33PM (#26050929)

    You fail to understand the purpose of civil disobedience.

    The purpose is to change things.

    You break the rules and you stand defiantly when Mr. Consequence shows up. If your cause is just, hopefully people stand with you. It may take a little blubbering.

    Quietly allowing Mr. Consequence to screw you is not the way to engage in civil disobedience.

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by timeOday (582209) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:33PM (#26050937)
    I'd say she stands a pretty good chance of not getting suspending, and getting the school's AUP policy changed. Are you saying she should instead simply accept suspension-martyrdom? Do you consider appealing a ruling to a higher court to be disrespectful of the law?
  • Re:Personally (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:35PM (#26050975)

    only on slashdot will you have a pedant being corrected by an even more pedantic critic

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by paeanblack (191171) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:38PM (#26051037)

    The university dilemma:

        -If the students can disrupt the system, then the administration has failed to do its job.

        -If the students can't disrupt the system, then the professors have failed to do their jobs.

    This case is nothing new. The university had a policy and had good reasons for that policy. A student broke the policy and had good reasons for breaking that policy. Student gets called for judicial review. If she can defend her actions, nothing happens. If she can't, she gets disciplined. Either way, nobody is walking away with any scars...there is no way she's getting the boot for this.

    Neither party is doing anything wrong here, and the process generally works fairly well.

  • by astarf (1292110) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:48PM (#26051215) Homepage
    No, no she can't. Aside from the point that you can only counter-sue if you're actually being sued (she's being suspended, not sued) there's a variety of flaws in that argument, the most blatant of which is the fact that it's a university system -- which means the university gets to set the acceptable use policy.
  • by sjames (1099) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @05:09PM (#26051491) Homepage

    So why do so many of us nowadays seem to equate spam with only 'unsolicited commercial e-mail'? In my mind, spam is any piece of unwanted bulk mail, whether it is 'commercial' in nature or not.

    Probably because it is by far the most prevalent and annoying form of spam and because it is clearly definable. Off-topic can be somewhat subjective, commercial and unsolicited are much more objective.

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Frnknstn (663642) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @05:16PM (#26051577)

    Spam is:

    Unsolicited,
    Bulk,
    Commercial
    email.

    It is not solicited email of any kind, it is not personal email of any kind, and it is not non-commercial email. A local school emailing your entire neighborhood to tell them that the school is closed due to snow is annoying, but it is not spam. A teenager who emails a chain letter to your entire domain is annoying, but it is not spam.

    This was (barely) bulk, and it was mostly unsolicited. It was not, however, commercial and thus it was not spam.

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @05:42PM (#26052003) Homepage

    RTFA! It is alleged that the student violated the policy. However, reading the policy, there is a clause that specifically permits bulk emailing communications regarding changes to university policies of procedures. There is room to interpret that as permission to bulk email about the changed academic calendar.

    Except her email wasn't an [informative] communication about the changes, it was a [personal and political] protest against the changes. As other have pointed out, the former is specifically permitted, the latter specifically forbidden.

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:3, Insightful)

    by stewbacca (1033764) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @06:42PM (#26052683)
    All I read was the Anonymous Coward said, "clearly" and "unconstitutional", then linked to a blog. I guess I'll never agree with some of you on /. Just because you believe something to be true, doesn't mean it is. Because YOU think something is unconstitutional, doesn't mean it is. Mind you, I don't DISAGREE that this sounds unconstitutional--it's just not my right to deem it as such. I CAN challenge the constitutionality of it, however. Things aren't automatically unconstitutional or not, until they are challenged.
  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cas2000 (148703) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @06:54PM (#26052827)

    no, while most spam is commercial, it doesn't have to be. i.e. "commercial" is NOT one of the defining attributes of spam. "unsolicited" and "bulk" are. spam is not about content, it is about consent.

    e.g there is political spam, religious spam, and chain-letter spam.

    if your example local school sent their notification to an opt-in list of people who wanted such notifications then it would not be spam. if, however, they sent it to everyone in the neighbourhood (or just to every parent) without first receiving a subscription request or obtaining prior consent then it would be spam.

    a teenager who sends a chain letter to your entire domain IS spam, as well as annoying.

    the student's email that this article about may or may not be spam. there isn't enough detail in the article to tell for sure.

    if she sent it to an existing staff list at the university which ordinarily allows students to email staff then it certainly would not be spam.

    if she constructed her own list then it might be spam. in any other context it certainly would be spam, but students DO have an implicit right to contact their teachers which makes it a grey area rather than clear cut.

    if she repeatedly sent email to her self-constructed list in order to harrass or cause annoyance or disruption of mail service then it would be mail-bombing (a form of DoS) rather than spam.

  • Re:That's stupid. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @07:04PM (#26052947)

    I've never heard him called blubbering, and he didn't "whine bitch and moan about the consequences" either.

    One person's whining, bitching and moaning is another person's insprirational speech. Segregationists would have called him a whiner among other things.

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BorgCopyeditor (590345) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @07:53PM (#26053503)

    To help students and faculty agree on the properness of university policies and programs is what student government is all about.

    Really? I thought it was about giving the ambitious and meddlesome a chance to hone their people-annoying skills while padding their resumes.

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ScrewMaster (602015) * on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @07:57PM (#26053555)

    I disagree with your characterization. MSU had never, until that point, enforced the policy even on actual spam and hacking activities. They enforced it the moment someone disagreed with a faculty position. One of the professors got bent out of shape by being confronted with discord from a student (the temerity!).

    There's no blubbering here, just righteous defiance. Remember, she insisted that charges be brought against her.

    Gotta give her credit for standing up for herself. Furthermore, it was only one professor out of some four thousand who registered a complaint. Apparently this wasn't a big problem for the faculty at all ... just for the Administration.

    That Lou what's-her-name President of the school will probably end up regretting this. She wanted to make a clear statement to the students: do what we tell you, and don't try to get the faculty on your side.. Instead, they ran up against someone who wouldn't cave when threatened. Now they're going to have to put up or shut up. Not only that, but if Ms. Spencer sticks to her guns, they may end up having a Federal judge tell them where to stick their email policies.

  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Danse (1026) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @06:22PM (#26066907)

    I consider this spam. She sent this to almost 400 instructors. When I went I had maybe 25 instructors.

    If it was something that she believed was relevant to all instructors, then it doesn't seem like spam. 400 is hardly an outlandish number when discussing email.

    Now it appears that she did violate the school's email policies, but those policies seem extremely conservative. One of the things she was writing about was the very limited time to comment on the issues that she was addressing. The email policies seem to contribute to that problem. So yeah, she violated the policies. She'll have to face the consequences for that. The school deserves the spotlight on its policies too though. Looks like she gets to be a martyr.

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