William Paterson University’s reprimand of an employee over an anti-gay e-mail he sent to a professor has sparked a debate over free speech.
Computer systems technologist and part-time student Jihad Daniel said that the e-mail he sent to a professor in March was a simple expression of opinion.
But Arlene Holpp Scala, the professor he sent it to, said the e-mail, which equated homosexuality with “perversion,” was threatening.
Now, the Philadelphia-based free-speech advocacy group FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) is claiming that Daniel’s rights were violated when he was reprimanded by the university for his e-mail.
“The university cannot punish constitutionally protected speech,” said FIRE president David French on Wednesday. “There’s no state or college policy that can trump the First Amendment.”
The group, which was founded by University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors and Boston lawyer Harvey Silverglate in 1999, has sent letters in support of Daniel to William Paterson, and posted notices about the incident on its Web site, thefire.org, asking people to write and call the university.
Daniel sent his e-mail to Holpp Scala, the Women’s Studies department chairwoman, in March after receiving a mass e-mail from her department about the screening of “Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House.” The mass e-mail billed the film as “a lesbian relationship story,” and included an e-mail address for Holpp Scala.
“Do not send me any mail about ‘Connie and Sally’ and ‘Adam and Steve,’” Daniel, a practicing Muslim, wrote to Holpp Scala. “These are perversions. The absence of God in higher education brings on confusion.”
Holpp Scala complained, and in June, the university told Daniel that a letter of reprimand was put into his file because his e-mail constituted harassment, he said. Daniel said he appealed, but that the university held firm. He is still employed by the university and is continuing his work toward a graduate degree in communications.
Holpp Scala said on Wednesday that she supported the university’s reprimand of Daniel.
“It creates a hostile environment,” she said of his e-mail. “I teach about violence, and I know that violence is oftentimes preceded by verbal attacks.”
The university refused to comment on Daniel’s reprimand or university guidelines regarding harassment. Its policy is not to comment on personnel matters, said Stuart Goldstein, a university spokesman.
Daniel, who lives in Hackensack, said that it was his right as a student of the university to express his opinion about an unsolicited e-mail. His religion teaches that the gay lifestyle is wrong, he said.
“You can’t invite me to reply to something and then become offended when I respond in a way you don’t want me to,” he said.
But Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay and lesbian rights political association, condemned Daniel’s remark and applauded the university’s reprimand.
“When someone speaks hatred in America, that person has to face the consequences of his actions,” he said.