Free Speech and Self-Harm

by Matthew vonAllmen

Staff Reporter

I have a confession to make. I hate campus debates about free speech.

Rational discussion about the issue is nonexistent. Political commentary from the left assumes that the entire world shares its niche lexicon and its unique epistemic framework, guaranteeing that anyone outside the left-leaning circle feels alienated and repulsed. They preach to the choir and lecture potential choristers on their faults. Counter-commentary from the right—or rather, the right’s libertarian wing—rarely engages with its opponents on their own terms, preferring to snark about the left’s supposed immaturity, latent authoritarianism, and unwillingness to challenge its own ideas. And both sides contain immense emotional baggage. Pundits often have personal stories where they were wronged or hurt by their political opponents’ preferred campus policies, or by the actions of the political opponents themselves.

Subscribing to the worldview of either side is a lot like adopting a warrior faith, except that God’s favored army is a seething mass of screaming journalists. I’d rather politics less resembled a war. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a case where people of all stripes find common ground.

In 2015, Northern Michigan University (NMU) student Katerina Klawes visited her school’s counseling office. She had been sexually assaulted the prior year and wanted to talk with a professional about her experiences. Unfortunately, this visit caught the university’s eye. In March, she received an email from the associate dean of students. It explained that she was strictly prohibited from discussing with friends any thoughts of suicide or self-harm that may have resulted from her sexual assault. Violation of this rule would result in disciplinary action.

Klawes herself was not suicidal, but she understood how damaging this message could be. For students struggling with suicidal thoughts, reaching out to a friend is often the first step toward seeking help. Threatening disciplinary action toward these students not only stigmatizes their condition, but cuts off an important avenue of support. NMU’s dean of students, Christine Greer, justified the email by claiming that suicidal students can impose an undue emotional burden on their classmates. Such an excuse is flimsy at best. Klawes responded to this archaic policy by creating an online petition, demanding an immediate review of the school’s treatment of at-risk students.

Soon enough, the signatures piled up. The petition drew on a wide support base; between 25 and 30 students at NMU received emails identical to Klawes’s each semester. In addition, several students from previous years wrote to Klawes, relating how they were personally affected by the policy. Their stories are now online beside their signatures.

Luckily, the petition attracted the attention of NMU management. In January 2016 they scrapped the policy, revised the wording of the emails sent to at-risk students, and created a Mental Health and Well-being Taskforce to better connect students with campus resources. There was only one problem.

The university forgot to tell anyone.

In August, 2016, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a private letter to NMU. The organization explained that incoming NMU first-years had reported being informed during a summer orientation that they could still face disciplinary action for discussing thoughts of self-harm with other students. Despite the university’s nominal changes, it continued to act as if the reforms had never occurred. FIRE considered this a violation of the First Amendment, and requested that NMU publicly inform students of its new policies.

FIRE received radio silence in response. Dissatisfied, the organization released the letter to the public on September 19th, hoping to cajole NMU into action. This had the desired effect. On September 30th, the university made a public statement acknowledging its lack of communication about the reforms. NMU also released a copy of the revised standard email sent to students like Klawes. It no longer contained any mention of disciplinary action, instead directing students to helpful campus resources.

So ends the story of NMU’s reprehensible policy. But controversy still abounds as different political sects seek to claim the victory as their own. At first glance, this issue lies squarely in the left’s domain. NMU’s treatment of those struggling with self-harm deprived people of a vital support mechanism. It further stigmatized the challenges of an already oppressed group and sought to hide their problems under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind. These are all issues the left cares about deeply. Our intuition tells us that liberal media outlets would side with Klawes, whereas conservative outlets would be indifferent at best. However, the facts suggest otherwise. Klawes’s petition was most popular in the libertarian press, which extensively covered the progress of NMU’s reforms.

Maybe political orientations don’t always need to oppose each other. Maybe we’re less different than we think.

The word “bipartisan” smacks of grudging compromise. It brings to mind tactical lawmaking, broad coalition building, and dispassionate centrism—hardly the stuff of warrior faiths. But what better warrior faith than one built on our common humanity? A truly bipartisan issue must move those of all political persuasions, not merely a narrow slice, and must therefore touch something deeper and more integral to the human experience than a mere partisan concern.

Did Klawes end a gross First Amendment violation, or a policy that isolated those struggling with thoughts of self-harm? The answer is unimportant. This was a victory for all of us. Let’s celebrate.

Citations:

Champion, Brandon. “Northern Michigan University clarifies self-harm policy after controversy.” Northern Michigan University clarifies self-harm policy after controversy | MLive.com. N.p., 27 Sept. 2016. Web. 7 Oct. 2016. <http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2016/09/northern_michigan_university_c_1.html>.

Thekan, Molly. “NMU sends out clarification email to students about its protocols to students with self-harm behavior.” NMU sends out clarification email to students about its protocols to students with self-harm behavior. N.p., 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 7 Oct. 2016. <http://www.uppermichiganssource.com/content/news/NMU-sends-out-clarification-email-to-students-about–394847571.html>.

Singal, Jesse. “A University Threatened to Punish Students Who Discussed Their Suicidal Thoughts With Friends.” A School Threatened to Punish Its Suicidal Students — Science of Us. N.p., 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 7 Oct. 2016. <http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/09/a-school-is-threatening-to-punish-its-suicidal-students.html>.

Fritz, Erickson J. “FIRE letter to Northern Michigan University, August 25, 2016.” FIRE letter to Northern Michigan University, August 25, 2016 – FIRE. Ed. John Merigliano. FIRE, 19 Sept. 2016. Web. 6 Oct. 2016. <https://www.thefire.org/fire-letter-to-northern-michigan-university-august-25-2016/>.

“Northern Michigan University practice concerning self-destructive students changed January 2016.” Northern Michigan University practice concerning self-destructive students changed January 2016 – University Marketing and Communications. NMU, 30 Sept. 2016. Web. 7 Oct. 2016. <http://www.nmu.edu/mc/current-mental-health-communication>.

Klawes, Katerina. “THE “I CARE PROJECT”: Revise NMU Student Self-Destructive Behavior Policy.” Petition Northern Michigan University. change.org, 1 Nov. 2015. Web. 7 Oct. 2016. <https://www.change.org/p/northern-michigan-university-the-i-care-project-revise-nmu-student-self-destructive-behavior-policy>.

“FIRE to Northern Michigan U.: End Ban on Students Discussing Self-Harm.” FIRE to Northern Michigan U.: End Ban on Students Discussing Self-Harm – FIRE. FIRE, 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 8 Oct. 2016. <https://www.thefire.org/fire-to-northern-michigan-u-end-ban-on-students-discussing-self-harm/>.

“University Response to Self-Harm Email.” University Response to Self-Harm Email | University Marketing and Communications at NMU. NMU, 1 Jan. 2016. Web. 8 Oct. 2016. <http://www.nmu.edu/mc/university-response-self-harm-email>.

“Suicidal Thoughts.” Suicidal Thoughts | NMU Counseling and Consultation Services. NMU, n.d. Web. 8 Oct. 2016. <https://www.nmu.edu/counselingandconsultation/suicidal-thoughts>.

White, Ken. “FIRE Attacks Northern Michigan University’s Shocking, Wanton Rule Against Students Sharing Suicidal Thoughts.” FIRE Attacks Northern Michigan University’s Shocking, Wanton Rule Against Students Sharing Suicidal Thoughts | Popehat. Ed. Ken White. N.p., 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 5 Oct. 2016. <https://popehat.com/2016/09/22/fire-attacks-northern-michigan-universitys-shocking-wanton-rule-against-students-sharing-suicidal-thoughts/>.

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