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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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  • by morgan_greywolf (835522) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @02:38PM (#26050079) Homepage Journal

    Back in the day on Usenet, spam was more than just 'unsolicited commercial e-mail', it was pretty much any post that was cross-posted and off-topic.

    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.

  • by deft (253558) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @02:39PM (#26050085) Homepage

    it's linked in the news article. It was well written, not off topic, and expressed a reasonable concern about the time period students have to get to know the school apparently. It was not "spam" at all.

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

    They simply should have redirected her appeal to the right people if it was not appropriate to be sent via that email list. Instead they are being punative.

  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @02:43PM (#26050161)

    She sent what amounted to a form letter to 391 professors. I certainly don't consider this spam. Given the lazy, unthoughtful way she went about this, I also don't consider this anything more than a waste of everbody's time. Sending what amounts to a bulk form letter via email isn't going to influence anyone.

    Beyond that, I think it's more problematic that she apparently refuses to comply with university policies once notified about them. Her position basically is "I intend to continue sending out poorly thought out, ineffectual bulk messages to all faculty whenever I see fit." In that context, maybe it does become spam...

  • by Xcott Craver (615642) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @02:46PM (#26050203)

    When I was in college, a little-known feature of the mainframe system allowed anyone with an MVS account (every CS major and anyone who took a CS class) to send a bulk instant message to everyone on campus.

    Astonishingly, this had the effect of shutting down all administrative offices, from payroll to the registrar to the financial aid office. This was because all the line printers had accounts too, and would choke on an improperly formatted input. Anyone with an account could do this. Of course it would be tied to your name, so in theory you'd want to use someone else's account.

    About every couple years a student would learn about the feature and innocently TELL EVERYONE HI without realizing that they were about to enter a dimension consisting entirely of pain. I do not think that even this transgression would result in a suspension---the chair might have you murdered, but no suspension.

  • by jmyers (208878) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @02:47PM (#26050219)

    If you also read the complaint, it is alleged that she was instructed the correct way to send the message and refused to do so. The compliant makes it sound like she was in a pissing contest with the network administrator. Not a good person to piss off if you want to send email.

    "the student was informed of the proper procedures to follow and flatly refused to obtain proper permissions stating that she would continue to send emails out and demanded that I file charges against her."

    sounds like she wanted some publicity to go with her spam.

  • by danzona (779560) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @02:50PM (#26050265)
    it's linked in the news article. It was well written, not off topic, and expressed a reasonable concern about the time period students have to get to know the school apparently. It was not "spam" at all.

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

    It sounds like the professors are more butthurt she got their email addresses

    That is the whole point, she got their email addresses and sent them spam.

    They simply should have redirected her appeal to the right people if it was not appropriate to be sent via that email list. Instead they are being punative.

    I agree with you here, but according to TFA, when they did this she refused and vowed to repeat her actions. TFA did not mention why she refused, so it is possible that the system in place would not be timely enough or would dilute her message, so I will give her the benefit of the doubt. I think that her actions do not merit suspension. Just take away her email privileges.
  • by imyy4u3 (1290108) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @02:53PM (#26050331)
    Is spam any unsolicited email sent out to 20 or more recipients? If so, this is spam.

    Is spam any unsolicited commercial email sent out to 20 or more recipients? If so, this is not spam.

    Is spam any unsolicited advertorial email sent out to more than 1 person? If so, this is not spam.

    Is spam any unsolicited email sent to more than 1 person? If so, this is spam.

    The problem here is we need a legal definition of spam to define what it is. Then once the public knows what spam is, we can prosecute those who send it illegally, and stop wasting our damn time arguing what it is. Personally, I like the definition of any unsolicited email sent to more than 20 people...regardless of the content.

  • by dexmachina (1341273) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @02:56PM (#26050385)
    I don't really think it's fair to call this a free speech issue. There are laws against spam in many countries, and we don't call that an attack on free speech. So the only real question here is whether or not what she did was actually considered spamming. From MSU's policy on bulk emailing (linked to in article): "Bulk e-mailing may be used only by University offices to send communications necessary to the normal course of business and which typically require some official action be taken individually by recipients." Since part of the proposal Spencer was speaking against involved shortening the fall semester by two days, I guess that sort of qualifies. However, the policy also says: "Bulk e-mailing may not be used for personal purposes, advertising or solicitations, or political statements or purposes." I think had she simply sent out an email informing faculty of the changes, it would be fine. But the purpose of the email was to solicit support. It's all a little fuzzy, but I think that with a little thought, there isn't much question that her email did violate MSU's terms of use. Profs, especially ones with large classes, have to deal with tonnes of email. I'd probably be annoyed to if someone had harvested my address off a database or website intended to be use for academic purposes, and started sending me mass emails about general student issues.
  • by db32 (862117) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:01PM (#26050463) Journal
    What? The violation says she was "representing a group falsly". It seems to me that what she did is perfectly inline with her job. The student government's job IS to raise these issues. As far as I can tell ONE professor bitched about it. Classifying what she did as a violation of policy is quite a bit of a stretch after reading the policies cited compared to what she did. So I think she is acting perfectly correctly when the IT department says "We are going to call this a violation of policy because a professor bitched at us, stop it" and she tells them go to hell.

    The part that I don't understand is why she would fight it. I never understood that in most of these types of cases. Why would you fight your university like this? Tell them fuck off I am going elsewhere and I am going to make this as public and noisy as possible so other students know what to expect. Why would you fight to stay at a school that sucks when you can easily go to a school that doesn't suck.
  • by BStewart (1427773) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:13PM (#26050631)
    We here at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) appreciate the widespread interest in Kara Spencer's case. I would encourage everyone to check out another article on this case over at The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-lukianoff/its-raining-spam-at-michi_b_149378.html [huffingtonpost.com] There is also a podcast interview with Kara Spencer on our website that might be of interest to some of you who wanted more details of the case: http://www.thefire.org/index.php/article/10008.html [thefire.org]
  • by Uberbah (647458) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:15PM (#26050669)

    If you also read the complaint, it is alleged that she was instructed the correct way to send the message and refused to do so. The compliant makes it sound like she was in a pissing contest with the network administrator. Not a good person to piss off if you want to send email.

    Yes, many school administrators have the opinion that their department policy is teh law, regardless of what the student may have signed or what the university guidelines actually state.

    For example, I knew someone at my university who registered a domain name to his dorm room computer. He got an email from the campus security admin telling him that was against university policy, and to take it down. The only thing the machine was serving was an image of the domain name, but he immediately did as requested. Then the student checked the universities guidelines on network usage, but was unable to find any policy on registering a domain to a campus ip address. The student asked the security admin to point out where this policy was written down. The security admin responded by trying to get the student suspended from the school.

  • by maillemaker (924053) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:20PM (#26050745)

    >Unless there are policies that say that this isn't allowed. The University has policies for distributing information, and this person ignored those policies.

    Well no shit, sherlock. Of course the University is going to try and control the flow of information concerning unpopular policy changes.

    Such attempts at control SHOULD BE ignored and thwarted.

    The university was trying to pull a fast policy change. This girl alerted everyone to it using the most efficient, straight-forward technique available. I don't care if the university "has policies" for damage contro....er for distributing information. What she did was right.

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

    by Chyeld (713439) <chyeld AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:20PM (#26050747)

    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.

    Haven't worked much in the uni environment have you? Grumpy old men shouting "Get off my lawn" seem welcoming compared to the grizzly bear attitude of a tenured professor who feels their authority has been challenged.

  • by sabs (255763) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @03:45PM (#26051169)

    If I'm a professor at a University with an open door/email policy. That I tell my students that they're always welcome to email me, even if they're no longer in my class. Then is it unsolicited?

  • Grafitti? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Roger W Moore (538166) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @04:21PM (#26051687) Journal
    So are laws banning grafitti unconstitutional too in the US because they restrict a person right to free speech? I did not realize that freedom of speech meant that you had the right to use other people's property in a way they have expressly asked you not to, in order to get your message across.
  • by EdwinFreed (1084059) on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @06:22PM (#26053171)
    Many years ago there was an incident at the college I was attending where the administration searched a number of student rooms without permission. After getting caught various justifications were given for the search.

    I was part of a group of concerned students who decided to write the ACLU and ask about the legality of the college's actions. We wrote the letter, but then decided it would look better if it was cosigned by the student council. Of course that brought the existence of letter out into the open.

    After the letter was approved and before it was sent, I was summoned to the office of a chemistry professor, someone I had never had dealings with before. Once there, he proceeded to threaten me with expulsion if the letter was sent, claiming, if memory serves, that it would be some sort of honor code violation.

    I responded by laughing at the guy and told him that the letter was going out and that if he took any sort of action against me I would sue his ass and the college's all the way from here to doomsday. He was struck dumb by my response - I don't think it had even occurred to him that he wouldn't get his way.

    The letter did go out (and got the predictable response - the college's actions were clearly illegal). And I never heard a single word from this professor again. I still see him from time to time. I always smile and wave, but I don't think he recognizes me.
  • Re:Mass mailing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by himurabattousai (985656) <gigabytousai@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 09, 2008 @06:42PM (#26053385)

    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.

    Yes, she was most definitely doing her job. To help students and faculty agree on the properness of university policies and programs is what student government is all about. Michigan State University has shown what it thinks of its students in general, and this one in particular. I would never advise anyone set foot on campus there, except to show them the money they are losing because of this idiocy.

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

    I think that the school is going to find that Mister Consequence is a rather painful guest to have to entertain. The FIRE has an excellent track record of making school administrators cry for their mothers, even on cases that do not see the inside of a court room. Mark my words, MSU will get owned if they decide to stand by their decisions.

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

    by AgentSmith (69695) on Wednesday December 10, 2008 @09:09AM (#26059423)

    OK here's the skinny.

    Michigan State defines SPAM in this policy

    http://lct.msu.edu/guidelines-policies/bulkemail.html [msu.edu]

    "Bulk e-mail" in this context means the transmission of an e-mail message within a short time frame to more than a small set of recipients who may not have elected voluntarily to receive the e-mail.

    Upper limit 'Short time frames' are defined as 2 days.

    It then goes to state right after the definition:

    1. Prohibited uses. Bulk e-mailing may not be used for personal purposes, advertising or solicitations, or political statements or purposes.

    Pretty clear that this should not be done.

    The article also includes the email sent, but redacts the sender line.
    My guess is that she used a University created faculty listserv.

    That article also supplies the allegations of their head of IT

    http://www.thefire.org/pdfs/ae43588d257a0fc64f512e2c99de1b35.pdf [thefire.org]

    which states Kara Spencer refused to stop using this listserv and said she was going to
    do it again. Also, she stated the head of IT should go ahead and file charges.

    Now, in that statement it's his word against hers unless he has some witnesses.

    But this is not a matter of free speech. It's not the message. It's how she broadcasted the message.
    It also pretty clear cut violation of misuse of university property (eg. the listserv) unless she can
    prove she created her own faculty listing from scratch. As for sending the bulk email it appears to be a clear violation
    based on the university policy.

    A question I would have about Michigan State:
      Does that University have a robust and timely mechanism for students to express ideas and address grievances?

    Normally I would say the student newspaper or actual protest in the street, but these
    are not timely nor do they usually hit the target audience of faculty.

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