Back in 2011, the Montclair State University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society invited 1960s radical Bill Ayers to speak on campus. Ayers founded the Weathermen, a group that bombed the Capitol and the Pentagon.
When he later wrote a book about his adventures, the New York Times ran an interview quoting him as saying, "I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.’’ That interview might have gone unnoticed if not for the day on which it happened to run: Sept. 11, 2001. So you could say Ayers is a somewhat controversial figure. Yet the university went to great lengths to make sure his speech would not be disrupted. Protesters were penned up outside and entrants were carefully screened. When Ayers finally spoke, his conservative critics sat and listened politely, saving their questions for afterward.
Let’s contrast that with what occurred when a far more mainstream figure spoke at Montclair several months ago. Steve Lonegan is a prominent Republican who ran for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2009. He has never blown up anything deadlier than a balloon.
Yet when the Young Americans for Liberty invited Lonegan to speak, they met much resistance on campus, said Daniel Kosciuzko, a student who is the state chair of the group.
"The fliers advertising the event were all torn down," said Kosciuzko. "A dean even lectured a student for posting them."
When the big night arrived, there was no cordon of security to screen entrants. As Lonegan spoke on economic liberty, he was interrupted by a heckler calling him a racist because of an incident that occurred in 2006 when he was mayor of Bogota and asked McDonald’s to remove a Spanish-language billboard from town.
"We asked him if he could calm down, but he kept on yelling," Kosciuzko said of the heckler. "He wouldn’t let Lonegan speak."
Afterward, a video of the encounter was posted on YouTube under the heading "Steve Lonegan is a racist." (Note: That video was later taken down; go to the 16-minute mark of the video below for a view of the incident in question.)
At that point, university officials finally sprang into action. They decided to enforce the college’s anti-bullying code. That code bans conduct "that takes place on the property of the institution of higher education or at any function sponsored by the institution of higher education, that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the institution or the rights of other students."
Did they discipline the guy who caused the disruption seen in the video? Nope. They went after a student who made a wisecrack in the comments section to the effect that the heckler’s female companion had fat legs. Tasteless? Lots of internet comments are. But that’s no business of the university.
Nonetheless Joseph Aziz, a 26-year-old grad student from Weehawken, was issued an order by the university telling him to keep away from the woman and to refrain from commenting further on the matter. The latter is what we in the journalism business call an "unconstitutional prior restraint." Robert Shibley of the Foundation on Individual Rights in Education calls it that, too.
"They simply told him you’re not allowed to talk about this on social media and that’s a power no American governmental entity has," said Shibley. "President Nixon didn’t get away with that in the Pentagon Papers case and that involved national security."
When Aziz proceeded to discuss the case on Facebook, he was informed that he would be suspended for a semester. When he appealed, he got a letter from university Vice President Karen Pennington rejecting that appeal and stating, "It is hard to understand how someone your age could truly expect that what you put on the internet is private."
What’s really hard to understand, said Shibley, is why a university official could fail to understand free speech. After Aziz called that group to complain about the suspension,FIRE promptly fired off a letter informing university officials they were in violation of the First Amendment.
The college officials then did what college officials usually do when FIRE catches them red-handed: They backed down. Aziz got a letter Thursday telling him the suspension was rescinded.
That’s nice. But there’s still the question of why the university went after Aziz but ignored the disruption of Lonegan’s speech. When I asked spokeswoman Suzanne Bronski about that, she replied, "To the best of my knowledge, that was a student event."
Well, so was the Ayers speech. And at that time, university President Susan Cole said, "It is one of the characteristics of a university that we allow people to speak, even when we disagree with them, even when we think they’re offensive."
Unless, of course, they’re conservatives.
ADD: Lonegan told me he was not in the least disturbed by the questions asked by this kid. He said he heard a lot worse during the many years he was mayor of Bogota. But the question remains: How can the univeristy ignore this kid calling Lonegan a racist on campus while going after Aziz for a wisecrack made off-campus?
Shibley notes that the anti-bullying code is clearly unconstitutional when applied to college students. Note the passage below from the state website instructing colleges on what that code must include:
(3) A definition of harassment, intimidation, or bullying that at a minimum includes any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic, that takes place on the property of the institution of higher education or at any function sponsored by the institution of higher education, that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the institution or the rights of other students and that: (a) a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his person or damage to his property; (b) has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students; or (c) creates a hostile educational environment for the student by interfering with a student’s education or by severely or pervasively causing physical or emotional harm to the student.
How could an adult believe that all speech which has the potential to inflict any emotional harm can be banned? These college administrators are badly in need of an education.