Montana State changes COVID-19 policy after alarm bells from First Amendment experts

FIRE wrote a letter asking the school to change the policy, citing First Amendment concerns.

Montana State University previously implemented a policy, mandating that attendance be tracked at all meetings, even private ones.

Montana State University recently promised to revise a tracing policy that some students felt infringed on their First Amendment rights.

The policy, which required a list of attendees at all meetings on campus, even private ones, was said to be intended to help the school trace those who have been infected with COVID-19, as well as those who were in contact with them. The previous policy required lists even in instances where no students tested positive for COVID-19.

After receiving a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education calling on the school to rescind the policy, the university agreed to do so. FIRE stated that it was “concerned about the threat posed to freedom of expression and freedom of association at Montana State University (”MSU”) by a new university policy requiring student organizations to record and report the names of all attendees at any student events.”

FIRE argued that such a policy “presents unnecessary risks to students’ First Amendment rights to speak and associate anonymously.”

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MSU responded to FIRE’s letter on Aug 27, informing the organization that it had decided to change the university policy. 

“After consultation with the Office of Student Engagement (OSE), the Office of Student Engagement is revising its material,” Vice President of Communications Tracy Ellig said in response to FIRE. “OSE is in the process of crafting and disseminating new language regarding attendance guidelines to make it clear there is no requirement that student clubs record attendance and then provide those records to the university.”

Ellig told Campus Reform that these instructions were laid out “without the knowledge of anyone in the senior administration” and that the new procedure requires this information only in the case where a student involved tests positive.

Ellig took issue with the characterization of the rule as a “policy.”

“First, this was never a ‘policy,’” she insisted, “It was simply instructions written by a well-meaning staffer who, like all of us, is surrounded by messaging and concerns about COVID-19, including contact tracing, day and night.”

“I view it as a simple mistake, but one that needed to be corrected and I am grateful to FIRE to bringing it to my attention,” she added.

The school’s website now notes that “Clubs and Organizations are not required to track attendance of their events on behalf of the Office of Student Engagement. Clubs and Organization may maintain their own attendance records for a short period – no more than 21 days – and provide those attendance records to public health officials in the event the Gallatin City-County Health Department needs assistance in finding the close contacts of an infected individual.”

FIRE Individual Rights Defense Program Officer Lindsie Rank told Campus Reform that students’ reaction to the policy was not an overreaction, calling it “ripe for abuse,” regardless of MSU’s intentions.

“This potential for abuse certainly created a chilling effect, a concern we heard voiced by MSU students: Students who may not want the MSU administration to know they are associated with controversial groups likely avoided attending events rather than be outed to administration,” said Rank.

”We are always optimistic that universities will recognize our concerns and respond by revising their actions, and we were glad to see that happen here. University administrators are rarely First Amendment experts, and sometimes they just need a reminder of their constitutional responsibilities,” Rank added.

FIRE’s concern surrounded the anonymity of students gathering. Students might be hesitant to reveal their presence in any club if they are concerned that knowledge of that presence could result in future discrimination. This might come, the letter argues, especially if the student is at a meeting of a political organization.

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“This concern is especially salient for political student organizations, such as the Marx Forum or the Young Americans for Liberty, that espouse viewpoints that others may find controversial,” the letter read.

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