Northern Michigan University, which has reportedly been threatening students with disciplinary action if they discuss suicidal thoughts or feelings with other students, has come under fire for potential violations of students' right to free speech.
NMU has come under criticism for its policy on self-destructive behavior, which bars students from discussing thoughts or feelings about self-harm and suicide, according to New York magazine.
NMU student Katerina Klawes told the magazine that after being sexually assaulted in 2014, she went to counselors to talk about how she was feeling, and received a puzzling message from Mary Brundage, associate dean of students at the school, after her meeting.
"Dear Kat," the message began, "I received a report that others are worried about your well-being." After offering to discuss "options for support," the letter went on to say that Klawes could face disciplinary action if she were to discuss thoughts of suicide or self-harm with other students.
"It is important that you refrain from discussing these issues with other students," said the letter, directing her to use support resources that the school offered. "If you involve other students in suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions you will face disciplinary action."
Klawes said that after receiving the message, she was perplexed -- she said that she had not discussed feeling suicidal during her meeting with a counselor. She emailed a response, asking whether or not she was allowed to respond to those who were concerned about her, without fear of potential expulsion. "I do not want to worry others by not responding," she said in her reply.
"You can certainly talk to your friends about how you are doing in general and set their minds at ease," replied Brundage in reply. "You cannot discuss with other students suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions. It is a very specific limitation."
Klawes discovered later that she was one of dozens of students at the school who had received similar warnings. NMU reportedly instituted the policy in an attempt to keep students' feelings of suicide or self-harm from overwhelming their peers, but the Foundation for Individual Rights has argued that the school may be violating students' right to free speech, as well as having harmful effects on students who are struggling with mental health crises.
NMU Dean of Students Christine Greer was quoted in local paper The Mining Journal as saying that students who told their friends about self-destructive thoughts could cause them to become overwhelmed.
"Relying on your friends can be very disruptive to them," said Greer. "Some students may be able to handle it, but many students are completely overwhelmed by it."
Klawes decided to take action, creating a Change.org petition urging the school to change the policy, which gained more than 2,000 signatures. In the petition, the group of students, which called itself the NMU Students "I Care" Organization, called not only for a change in the university's policy, but also an increase in counseling resources for students as well as a call to publish statistics on students who had been punished or threatened with action as a result of the policy.
After a statement was posted on NMU's website saying that the students' voices had been heard, FIRE says there have been no indications that the school plans to change its policy.
The policy is reportedly still in place, as at least one incoming freshman from the 2016-2017 academic year has said that her orientation group was told that they "could face negative consequences" for discussing thoughts of self-harm or suicide.