Is Emailing Professors About School Schedule Changes Spam?

from the whatever-you-don't-like-is-spam dept

One of the biggest problems with any kind of regulations concerning "spam" is that people define it very differently -- with the core definition tending to be "anything I don't like" which is rather difficult to reduce into written regulation. That problem seems to be cropping up at Michigan State, where a student is being disciplined for spamming the faculty. The student was upset about a plan to shorten the 2009 fall semester, and sent emails to 391 faculty members, alerting them to the planned change, and pointing out how it could impact their syllabi and schedules. Apparently one out of the 391 professors complained about this as spam, and the school notes that its rules say email to more than 30 people is considered spam (the actual policy seems to leave some wiggle room, but not much).

While you could see how professors would get annoyed if they were constantly bombarded by students supporting different causes asking for help, it's still difficult to see how this particular use of the email system really counts as spam. Some are pointing out that, since Michigan State is a public university, it needs to protect students' free speech rights -- and disciplining this student goes against those rights. Overall, the fear should be that this sort of disciplinary process acts as a hindrance to public participation among students. If actually trying to get out the word on an issue, by sending emails to the folks who are impacted, is likely to get them disciplined, then won't people start to think twice before even bothering? Is that the message Michigan State is trying to send to its students?

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anon, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 2:26am

    So does that mean if they use a mailing list with more then 30 people on it, that's spam? Or what if they posted a message to usenet?

    I tend to define spam as unsolicited emails from people I don't know, not just anything I don't like.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Peet McKimmie (profile), Dec 9th, 2008 @ 2:31am


    Or unsolicited email from people you do know but who won't take a hint. (Or, in the case of companies, won't provide a working "Unsubscribe" link...)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 2:32am

    HALP! My inbox has been violated!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    SteveD, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 2:44am

    This seems more like a case of not using the right tool for the job; I'm sure there are processes to communicate to the student body and academic body without having to mass-email everyone.

    The distinction comes when something like posting on a campus message board is a bit less 'in your face' then emailing someone directly, but the danger is that if such a method was widely used, the email system would become unusable.

    As a University researcher I'm on a few internal email lists; the vast majority mail I get are various internal/admin stuff, irrelevant. Lecturers get several times that useless volume and have to spend a good deal of time sifting the important stuff. Professors get more still.

    But you can't just block this stuff or filter it, often its important to keep it as records. But if people start abusing the system it creates a huge headache for everyone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Mike (profile), Dec 9th, 2008 @ 3:41am


    So does that mean if they use a mailing list with more then 30 people on it, that's spam? Or what if they posted a message to usenet?

    To be fair, the policy at the school points out that email mailing lists are fine. It's based on how many addresses you specifically enter into the to: cc: and bcc: lines.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 4:00am

    And how exactly does their policy allow for them spamming alumni to "panhandle" for donations?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Sneeje, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 5:30am

    Getting a little tired of the cavalier use of Free Speech

    First, I agree with Mike regarding the situation, but I'm a little tired of people throwing around the First Amendment to justify forcing their thoughts on anyone else without consequence.

    Free speech is not an unrestricted right. It does not mean that you can say anything you want, wherever you want, and however you want, free of consequence. Free speech will always be balanced by the rights of others (safety, privacy, property, etc.).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Doug, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 6:06am

    This is a case of absolute rediculousness

    Personally, as a student and staff member of my college, you would not believe the amount of 'Daily News' that I get in my e-mail. It seems like every day I have to pick out what I need and what I think is junk, but no matter, there are important issues that need to be handled.

    If only one out of 391 professors complained about the so-called "spam" that he received, then to me it seems like the other 390 felt it was useful. What's next? Is no one going to be able to make an announcement in front of a group of people because we are now going to call it "verbal spam?" Was the United States built on an "I don't want to hear your opinion so now I will punish you for having one" basis? I didn't think so...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    SeaTec, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 6:28am

    Fact is , the student ignored policy. If you want to reach more than the 30 people in a givine group, here ebing the Faculty then im sure there is a School bulletin board that couldve been used to state your point.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 6:41am

    In my experience the message any University is trying to send is, "conform, or else."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 6:42am

    Is it that students responsibility to inform 391 faculty members about schedule changes? To me that sounds like something each department should handle. Sound like this Student Government member let the power to their head.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 6:50am


    he was protesting the schedule change and trying to drum up support, only one person out of the nearly 400 faculty complained.

    I think that says that his message was relevant and properly aimed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 7:07am

    If he didn't like the e-mail or chose not to want to see those e-mails he probably could have setup a filter on his e-mail program (most schools use Outlook). He also could have requested that he be removed from their list, most people prefer to be e-mailed because it is easier to miss a notice on a bulitin board

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Spamcop, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 8:46am


    Agreed. Note to the University: Or else what? If your a student, you entered into a commercial agreement where Money is exchanged for services. Thusly, under existing laws such as Can-SPAM and the National Do-Not-Call registry protect such communication. By definition can not be considered "Spam" if you have a commercial relationship with the other party.

    So let's look at the 390 faculty members that didn't complain. Were they "in the know" already? Did the other 390 faculty learn of this change by the "Offending email" which, really is better described as time-sensitive fact? Silly, silly.

    Then there's the one person who complained: Why did they think it was offensive? Was it actually their job to offend others with sharing the compressed schedule, and they were denied this quasi-fascist luxury?

    You'd think the University Administration had better, more important things to do than to go on a witch hunt and burn people at the stake.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 9th, 2008 @ 9:37am


    I just did a quick search of MSU and did not find a message board and if there is one I'm sure that next to no one reads it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anon2, Dec 10th, 2008 @ 5:58am

    another day in court?

    Michigan State, being a public university, is fully subject to the free speech clause of the First Amendment. And a more clear violation of that clause in a university setting, I've not seen in at least a little while. Lucky for this student, almost as soon as the story surfaced, she was contacted by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), who after first trying gentle persuasion of the school's administration, is now getting ready if they don't back down pretty soon to take it to federal court. Where it belongs, and where the entire anti-spam policy can be examined in light of the free speech issues it implicates. FIRE is a truly terrific organization, and there can be no doubt she will be well-represented, whether in talks with the university, or in court.

    Spamcop raises what potentially could be an interesting legal question, if this were to go to court (and if it was raised by her attorneys): federal pre-emption. I'm no expert in this particular area of the law, but have encountered it once or twice. In general, the concept is that where Congress chooses through legislation to regulate some form of activity, it may be the case that state institutions may not impose more restrictive regulations. There are a number of prerequisites to a finding of preemption, and the SCOTUS has a major preemption case in front of it this session, but it's something that, were I her attorney, I'd take ten or twenty hours and really research the heck out of -- or at least the four or five hours it would take to do an initial and very preliminary evaluation of the theory.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Andy, Dec 10th, 2008 @ 9:22am

    definition of spam

    Spam being defined as "anything I don't like" also goes the other way, when people define non-spam as "mail I want to get through". I've had to deal with people who were spam blocked and couldn't understand why because "what they send isn't spam".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    you, Dec 11th, 2008 @ 2:54am

    Re: Re:

    red cedar message boards.
    mostly sports.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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