Free speech under fire at New Jersey university

July 28, 2005

Of all places, public universities should be viewed as havens of free speech, intellectual marketplaces where knowledge and ideas are permitted to flow freely.

Obviously, the market is closed at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

A controversy began brewing in march when Arlene Scala, chair of the women’s studies department, sent out a mass, unsolicited e-mail advertising a screening of the movie Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House, described as a “lesbian relationship story.” Nothing wrong so far.

Jihad Daniel, a 63-year-old student and employee of the university, took offense to the e-mail, however. He replied privately, and in a four-sentence message referred to homosexuality as a “perversion,” decried to lack of God in higher education and requested to receive no further correspondence on the subject. There was no further communication between the two.

Scala had provided an avenue for feedback from recipients of the e-mail, and Daniel’s message, though vitriolic, was businesslike and non-threatening. Nevertheless, Scala described it as such, and her complaint resulted in an official letter of reprimand to be placed in Daniel’s file, actions backed up by the New Jersey attorney general on the grounds that he had engendered a hostile work environment.

As a student and employee, it stands to reason that Daniel should have the right to express his views to the faculty and staff of the publicly funded institution, especially considering he didn’t even begin the exchange. His message was in no way personal, and it’s hard to interpret the situation as anything but a student being persecuted for expressing ideas not in line with those of the university’s higher-ups.

Free speech that’s only free for those who share the views of those in power is in many ways more dangerous than outright persecution. Those at Paterson responsible for the decision are a disgrace to the ideals to which higher education should be loyal.

Schools: William Paterson University Cases: William Paterson University: Punishment on Harassment Charges for Response to Mass E-Mail