Michigan Tech lawsuit stirs free speech debate
Houghton — A social media company didn’t think it was a threat. Neither did a prosecutor.
But that didn’t stop a Michigan college from expelling a student last year for posting a message on the Yik Yak social media app.
Michigan Technological University police also charged student Matt Schultz with making a terrorist threat, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, but the count was later reduced and then dropped.
It’s just the latest battle in a war that has roiled college campuses throughout the U.S., according to civil liberties groups.
The fight between free speech and the rights of the marginalized has now spread all the way to this small, isolated school in the Upper Peninsula.
Schultz, 22, said the school, in a fit of political correctness, overreacted to his post and misled the public about it while pressuring a prosecutor to bring criminal charges against him.
“The school code says students should be accountable, but where is their accountability,” Schultz told The Detroit News.
He filed a federal lawsuit against Michigan Tech seeking reinstatement and damages over $75,000. A hearing is scheduled Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids.
In November 2015, Schultz was reading a discussion on Yik Yak about racial upheaval at the University of Missouri where whites and blacks were threatening each other, according to police reports.
“Gonna shoot all black people. . . . . . .A smile tomorrow,” wrote Schultz, adding a smiley face.
Another Michigan Tech student who read the post sent it to a school administrator and then, removing the words “A smile tomorrow,” sent the doctored post to the administrator, school police and school Twitter account, according to court records.
The school issued a campus-wide alert and suspended Schultz, and the school police arrested him, according to interviews and hundreds of pages of police, court and school documents reviewed by The News.
Michigan Tech would later say its actions were based on the original post, but whenever school officials publicly discussed the threat, they referred only to the doctored post. The post had been immediately deleted from Yik Yak.
After Houghton County Prosecutor Mike Makinen reduced the terrorist charge to disturbing the peace in November 2015, a school administrator wrote a campus-wide email encouraging students to attend a rally at the courthouse to protest the move, according to the email, which was released by the school.
Michigan Tech and its attorneys declined to discuss the case in detail, only saying: “The university is vigorously defending all claims against it,” university spokeswoman Jennifer Donovan said. “It will continue all we need to do to ensure a safe campus.”
Some students showed little sympathy toward Schultz’s plight.
“It can be interpreted many ways,” said Wesley McGowan, a black student who graduated last year, about the original post. “It could mean he would shoot me and then smile.”
Michigan Tech, like other engineering schools, is mostly white and male. Its 7,300 students include just 69 blacks, many from Metro Detroit.
But the college works hard to ensure women and other races feel welcome, students say. Its diversity efforts won national awards from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine three years in a row.
A big reason for the awards, from 2012 to 2014, is the school’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which creates safe spaces for students through services, workshops and events, according to its website.
“MTU takes diversity seriously,” said Peter Nouhan, editor of the Lode, the student newspaper. “The center is very active on campus.”
In November 2015, a school satirical publication, the Daily Bull, made light of sexual assault by publishing a list of signs that a woman wants to have sex. Among them: “Only screams a little” and “Used the less irritating pepper spray.”
The school administration placed the Daily Bull on probation for two years and required its staff to receive sensitivity training.
During the turbulence at the University of Missouri in November 2015, the school president and chancellor at Mizzou resigned after weeks of criticism they had done too little to address students’ racial concerns.
On Nov. 12, 2015, Schultz was on the Michigan Tech campus when he posted his comment on Yik Yak, which allows people in a five-mile radius to post messages anonymously, according to a campus police report.
Schultz, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, grew up in Norway, a small town along the Michigan-Wisconsin border.
A screenshot of Schultz’s post was quickly tweeted by @NunyaBizness to Les Cook, Michigan Tech’s vice president for student affairs and advancement, court records show.
“this is what your students think about the Mizzou terror threats,” read the tweet.
A half-hour later, student Ryan Grainger said he used the @NunyaBizness account to tweet a different screenshot, one that omitted the words “a smile tomorrow,” to Cook and the school twitter account.
“your students behave like this,” tweeted Grainger. “Given what #Mizzou went through how will the school respond?”
Grainger, who doesn’t know Schultz, said he also emailed the changed screenshot to campus police and a local TV station, but didn’t realize it had been doctored.
He said a friend had changed the screenshot and gave it to Grainger without telling him what he had done.
Grainger, 23, told The News he regularly used a computer program to capture posts on Yik Yak and then tweeted them from @NunyaBizness. He said he did so to expose racism on campus.
“The student body is the most horrible, bigoted group of people I’ve ever had the misfortune of being around,” he said.
Grainger, who referred to the original and doctored posts as “white supremacist screeds,” is a defendant in the federal lawsuit.
The digital trail
After receiving the doctored post, campus police sent it to Yik Yak and asked for the identity of the person who posted it, according to the police report. The company said the post had been cropped and asked for the original. The police then sent the original post.
Yik Yak declined the police request, saying the post wasn’t threatening.
“Yik Yak does not have a sufficient basis to form a good faith belief that the posts in question constitute ‘an emergency involving the danger of death or serious physical injury,’ ” wrote the company’s legal department, according to a copy of the email contained in the police report.
The police then used a search warrant to learn Schultz’s name. He was arrested the same day he made the post.
Three days later, Cook sent out a campus-wide email exhorting students to attend a rally that night after Makinen reduced the charge, according to documents released by the school.
“We will be marching to protest the lack of stringent charges,” he wrote in the Nov. 15 email, which was released by the college. “Our life is not a joke.”
About 100 students clutching candles marched through campus and downtown Houghton before having a moment of silence on the steps of the county courthouse, according to news reports.
School President Glenn Mroz attended a second protest two weeks later, holding hands with students around the school statue.
Meanwhile various school administrators, when discussing the case publicly, continued to refer to the doctored post, despite campus police having been told from the outset that it had been cropped.
It wasn’t until student Brent Halonen filed a public records request with the school in February 2016, three months into the controversy, that the school acknowledged the original, less threatening post.
Halonen said he filed the records request because some people on campus had begun to question the school administration’s version of the event.
Despite the pressure from the school, Makinen dropped the criminal charges after a search of Schultz’s computer and home didn’t find any evidence of a threat. He attributed the earlier charge to a “miscommunication” with the school.
When students learned that hadn’t been given the full story, they turned critical of the school.
“Not only was the university allowing mob rule, they were leading the charge. It was just absurd,” said Halonen, 26, a doctorate student who doesn’t know Schultz.
On Dec. 7, 2015, the same day the criminal charges were dropped, the Michigan Tech conduct board held a disciplinary hearing and suspended Schultz for 18 months.
The board found Schultz guilty of violating the student code by engaging in disruptive behavior, but absolved him of advocating physical violence and inciting activities that would threaten others.
When Schultz appealed the ruling, the school reinstated the more serious charges and expelled him.
In a January 2016 letter announcing the decision, Bonnie Gorman, the dean of students, acknowledged a doctored post had circulated in the media but told Schultz he was being punished only for his original post.
“Having you on campus is detrimental to the best interests of Michigan Tech,” she wrote in the Jan. 5 letter. “You are expelled from the institution.”
‘They ... ran me out’
During the brouhaha, Schultz said he was afraid to leave his apartment. When he did, people didn’t know what to say to him. He said the school turned him into a poster boy for racial hatred.
After Michigan Tech, he worked for a while as a design engineer for a fiber optic cable company in Metro Detroit.
He’s now taking classes at a community college with the hope of getting back into a mechanical engineering program.
“I’m trying to be as positive as anyone can be, and not let this experience define me,” he said.
As for Grainger, much of the wrath that had been visited upon Schultz shifted to Grainger after the public records request in February 2016 exposed the latter’s role in the saga.
Grainger said he began getting death threats with some people showing up at his apartment. He said the school found him temporary housing on campus until he found a more secure home.
He eventually dropped out of school in May and has since moved to Seattle, where he’s thinking of resuming college.
“They basically ran me out of that town,” he said during a phone call from Seattle. “Every single terrible thing that could be said about a person was said about me.”