Let’s score another one for the First Amendment

December 8, 2005

When a William Paterson University graduate student responded sourly to a professor’s e-mail about the showing of a movie about two aging lesbians, she brought him up on charges of sexual harassment and threatening. The graduate student was censured.

Now, nine months later, in a grievance hearing sought by his union, a WPU hearing officer has cleared the student, Jihad Daniel, of these serious charges.

But Daniel, who is also a university computer tech specializing in repairing printers, was found to have sent his message on the WPU computer system when he was supposed to be working.

For such a petty offense, he’s to get what amounts to a verbal slap on the wrist.

This nasty little story began last winter when Professor Arlene Holpp Scala, a member of the Women’s Studies Department, posted an e-mail throughout WPU’s Wayne campus announcing that she would be showing the movie "Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House."

In her e-mail, Scala described the film as "a lesbian relationship story." It had its first showing at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.

"Ruthie and Connie" is no Hollywood fiction but a documentary about two New York women who found each other later in life, left their families and began their own relationship.

Jihad sent Scala an e-mail and told her – in unmistakable terms – precisely what he thought about the movie, which he had not seen, and about lesbians. And he asked not to be sent any more such notices.

"Do not send me any mail about ‘Connie and Sally’ and ‘Adam and Steve,’ " Jihad wrote to Scala. "These are perversions. The absence of God in higher education brings on confusion. That is why in these [WPU] classes the Creator of the heavens and the earth is never mentioned."

Scala saw the word "perversions" as a reference to lesbians and their relationships, and filed a formal protest with the university. She said she felt threatened by Daniel’s e-mail.

A hearing was held. Daniel explained that his response was borne out of his Islamic faith. But Scala was upheld. As a result, a letter of censure was placed in Daniel’s otherwise spotless employment record.

With the assistance of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Daniel fought the finding and lost, appealed it and lost; asked Arnold Speert, the president of the university, to reverse the finding, and was rejected.

Finally, this fall, Daniel went before a WPU hearing officer.

And this week he found that the craggy old First Amendment was still intact when the hearing officer cleared him of charges that he harassed the professor because he had the temerity to state his views in a response to an unrequested e-mail.

In fact, Jihad Daniel, 63, didn’t threaten anyone.

In the appeal before Sandra DeYoung, the dean of the College of Science and Health, Daniel said he did not know Scala and was responding strictly to her e-mail. Of likening a lesbian relationship to a perversion, he testified, "God said this, if you believe in God. It is in both the Bible and Quran."

DeYoung found that the university had failed to support the charge of harassment.

"Mr. Daniel’s use of the word ‘perversion,’ though it may be upsetting to some, does not appear to have caused any discriminatory actions," DeYoung said.

With her finding, the university dropped Daniel’s reprimand.

A spokesman for Speert said he would not comment on personnel matters.

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