News Story

'Gag Order' Put NMU On List of Anti-Free Speech Campuses

Northern Michigan threatened sanctions for students who discussed 'self-harm'

Northern Michigan University has been named to a list of American colleges that were most unfriendly to students’ First Amendment rights last year.

The list, compiled by Greg Lukianoff, president of the civil liberties group known as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is titled “The 10 Worst Colleges For Free Speech: 2017.”

In September 2016, FIRE sent a letter to NMU asking the university to rescind a policy that prohibited students from discussing self-harm with other students. The civil liberties organization said the policy amounted to an unconstitutional gag order.

“NMU had a long-standing practice of prohibiting students suspected of engaging in or considering self-harm from discussing 'suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions' with other students. If they did, they faced the threat of disciplinary action,” Lukianoff wrote in The Huffington Post.

The university rescinded the policy in late September, days after FIRE drew attention to it.

“Unfortunately, NMU has not answered all of its students’ questions,” Lukianoff said. “NMU is currently under investigation by the departments of Justice and Education for allegations that it threatened to disenroll a student for discussing mental illness with a friend. The school allegedly forced the student to sign a behavioral contract promising not to do so again. Is that student now free from her contract?”

“Is every student who received a letter about discussing self-harm now free to speak out? Will NMU ever acknowledge and apologize to the countless students it hurt in the past, many of whom have spoken up to FIRE and online? Until we get answers, NMU remains on our list of worst schools for free speech,” he added.

NMU spokesman Derek Hall responded to FIRE’s article.

“FIRE continues to push this narrative,” he said in an email. “I can agree with the article, NMU did issue such letters and NMU now does not continue the practice in any form.”

Hall noted that NMU provides students with counseling and information regarding mental health.

“NMU does not forbid, in writing or verbally, students from talking to others about self-harm thoughts,” he added. Hall also said mental health counselors cannot share private information with administrators and that students cannot be withdrawn from classes for mental health reasons.

NMU continues to cooperate with the federal agencies concerning a complaint that was originally filed with the Office of Civil Rights during the fall semester of 2013,” Hall said. “Since 2011, NMU has sought further guidance and direction from the Office of Civil Rights concerning university policies related to students with thoughts of self-harm. Our desired outcome of the DOJ investigation is to receive clear instructions concerning our policies and practices as we strive to better serve all of our students.”

Northern Michigan University received $46,279,200 in state funds in fiscal year 2016-17.