Montclair State overturns suspension for “trolling”; student says he hopes case sets a precedent

January 18, 2013

MONTCLAIR — A Montclair State University student suspended for comments he made on YouTube and Facebook will get to return to class after the school’s president overturned the punishment.

Joseph Aziz, 26, was informed of Montclair State President Susan Cole’s decision in a letter sent Thursday, school officials said. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit civil liberties group, had appealed to the president to reconsider Aziz’s one-semester suspension earlier this month.

The graduate student said he is happy to be able to return to school. But he is disappointed it took media coverage and the intervention of a civil liberties group to prompt the university to reconsider his case.

"The school has reversed my suspension, however it took the force of the media for this to occur," said Aziz, of Weehawken. "It is disquieting that the administration at MSU, through either disregard of the U.S. Constitution or ignorance, chose to violate my rights as prescribed under the 1st, 5th, and 14th amendments.

"I hope this case sets a precedent for fighting future violations of the U.S. Constitution by college administrations nationwide," he said.

Aziz’s case began last semester when he made fun of a female classmate’s weight in two comments he wrote below a YouTube video. In one of the posts, he said the woman’ legs looked like "a pair of bleached hams."

The university issued Aziz a "no-contact" order, forbidding him from speaking to the woman or talking about her on social media sites.

A few weeks later, Aziz was suspended for one semester after he mentioned the woman’s name while joking about the incident in a Facebook group he thought was private.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, known as FIRE, came to Aziz’s defense and publicized his case on its website earlier this week.

Robert Shibley, FIRE’s senior vice president, commended Montclair State’s president for correcting what the civil liberties group viewed as a violation of the student’s free speech rights.

"Montclair State briefly tried to justify its decision by appealing to New Jersey’s anti-bullying law, but Aziz’s comments did not constitute bullying under the law’s definition of the term," Shibley said. "While Montclair State recognized its error this time, several of the university’s policies could still be used to silence student speech in the future." 

Montclair State officials said the president overturned Aziz’s suspension after consulting with the school’s attorneys.

"The president received the results of that review and has sent correspondence to the student as to her final determination of the matter," Montclair State officials said in a statement.

Aziz, who works at 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.

Spring semester classes begin Tuesday.

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