Civil liberty group defends Montclair State student suspended for Facebook, YouTube comments

January 16, 2013

MONTCLAIR — Joseph Aziz admits he was "trolling" — internet slang for posting inflammatory comments online — when he wrote a comment below a YouTube video last fall saying a female classmate’s legs looked like "a pair of bleached hams."

Aziz, a Montclair State University graduate student from Weehawken, said he never imagined the jab at a stranger’s weight would prompt a complaint to university administrators, who forbade him from having any contact with the woman or talking about her on the internet.

He was even more shocked, he said, when Montclair State officials called him into a disciplinary hearing a few weeks later after he mentioned the woman’s name while joking about the incident in a Facebook group he thought was private.

Aziz’s punishment: a one-semester suspension and a note on his college transcript.

"I would hope other students in colleges across New Jersey never have to deal with something like this," said Aziz, 26, who began his suspension this month. "Freedom of speech and due process are basic rights that we have come to expect as Americans. I hope my story draws attention to the fact that these rights can be violated by broad, overreaching university codes of conduct."

Now, Aziz’s case — which highlights the complex intersection of campus rules, social media and free speech rights — has attracted the attention of a national civil liberties group.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says administrators at the 18,000-student public university overstepped their authority when they ordered Aziz to not mention the woman’s name on the internet.

"As an agency of the government, Montclair State has no power to order students not to discuss any topic or person on independent social media sites like Facebook," said Robert Shibley, FIRE’s senior vice president.

The nonprofit group sent a letter to Montclair State President Susan Cole earlier this month asking her to rescind Aziz’s suspension. The group also questioned whether the university is violating free speech rights by punishing students for posts on social media sites.

In a statement Tuesday, Montclair State officials declined to discuss details of the case, citing student privacy laws.

"The university acted in accordance with its Student Code of Conduct which complies with the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, and other applicable federal and state regulations," the statement said.

Karen Pennington, Montclair State’s vice president for student development and campus life, explained the university’s actions in detail in a letter she sent Aziz last month denying his appeal of his suspension.

Pennington criticized the graduate student for "trolling" and assuming hurtful comments posted on the internet would not have consequences.

"Are you so focused on non-productive activities such as Facebook and ‘trolling’ that you have misplaced your priorities?," Pennington wrote in the letter, a copy of which Aziz provided to FIRE to post online. "It also is hard to understand how someone your age could truly expect that what you put on the internet is private."

The incident began in August, when Aziz attended a campus speech by former Bogota mayor and Republican gubenitorial candidate Steve Lonegan with fellow members of Young Americans For Liberty, a campus political group. 

A male student, who was accompanied by a female friend, heckled Lonegan during his speech. A video of the racially charged confrontation was posted on YouTubeand Aziz said he posted two comments below the video, calling the heckler and his female friend fat.

"The initial comments were in poor taste and I regret making them," he said. "I was frustrated with what I perceived as an attack on the speaker whose appearance my group sponsored."

The comments were later removed from YouTube and Aziz never had any contact with the female student, whom Aziz and university officials declined to name.

After Aziz received his "no-contact" order from the university, he said he joked about the incident in a members-only Facebook group called "Oceanian Troll Order." He said a member of the Facebook group copied his comments naming the female student and sent them to Montclair State officials, which led to his suspension.

Aziz, who works for a cosmetics company he declined to name, received his bachelor’s degree from Montclair State in 2011. He is enrolled in the university’s master’s in science degree program in molecular biology.

He said he is concerned his suspension will affect his microbiology career.

"The ability to advance in my career is severely hindered without a graduate degree," said Aziz, who is also considering filing a lawsuit against the university. "Transferring to another school is also difficult since a disciplinary suspension is noted on my transcript . … I would hope this blight on my record is removed."

Schools: Montclair State University Cases: Montclair State University: Student Barred from Campus for Violating Unconstitutional ‘Gag Order’