William Paterson University Tramples Student’s Constitutional Rights

July 20, 2005

WAYNE, N.J., July 20, 2005—William Paterson University in New Jersey has convicted student employee Jihad Daniel of “discrimination” and “harassment”—without due process—for describing homosexuality as a “perversion” in a private response to a professor’s unsolicited announcement of a university event that promoted a positive view of lesbian relationships.
 
“William Paterson’s punishment of Mr. Daniel is a direct attack on freedom of speech,” remarked David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which intervened on Daniel’s behalf. “For the university to convict a student of ‘harassment’ for sending a single, non-threatening e-mail dangerously trivializes real harassment.”
 
Daniel’s “offense” took place on March 8, 2005, when he responded to an unsolicited e-mail from Professor Arlene Holpp Scala, chair of the department of women’s studies, about a viewing and discussion of a film described as “a lesbian relationship story.” Daniel privately replied to Professor Scala, requesting that he not be sent “any mail about ‘Connie and Sally’ and ‘Adam and Steve.’” Daniel went on, “These are perversions. The absence of God in higher education brings on confusion. That is why in these classes the Creator of the heavens and the earth is never mentioned.”
 
On March 10, Professor Scala filed a complaint with the university’s Office of Employment Equity and Diversity, accusing Daniel of violating university nondiscrimination policy because his message “sound[ed] threatening” and because she didn’t want to “feel threatened at [her] place of work when [she] send[s] out announcements about events that address lesbian issues.”
 
Director of Employment Equity and Diversity John I. Sims subsequently proceeded to “investigate” Scala’s complaint. On June 15, William Paterson President Arnold Speert wrote Daniel a letter of reprimand, stating that “the investigator concluded that since the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of ‘perversion’…is clearly a ‘derogatory or demeaning’ term,” Daniel therefore was guilty of violating state discrimination and harassment regulations. The president also wrote that the letter of reprimand would be placed in Daniel’s permanent employee file.
 
Daniel contacted FIRE for assistance and appealed Speert’s decision on First Amendment grounds. President Speert responded that the constitutional argument was “beyond the scope of this finding” and that “the assessed penalty of a written reprimand must, therefore, stand as issued.”
 
“William Paterson University is knowingly disregarding the U.S. Constitution. No one here was ‘harassed’ or ‘threatened’ as defined by the law. The university simply strongly disliked a student’s point of view,” remarked Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “As the Supreme Court wrote in its seminal opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, ‘freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom.’ William Paterson’s administration would be well served by reading this compelling opinion.”
 
FIRE wrote President Speert on July 5 to protest William Paterson’s unlawful actions and to remind this public university of its obligations to protect students’ constitutional rights. FIRE pointed out that the university’s decision “blatantly contradicts decades of Supreme Court decisions clarifying unlawful harassment and protecting freedom of expression,” and that “William Paterson and its administrators cannot simply choose to ignore the First Amendment when it becomes inconvenient.”
 
On July 15, New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey responded to FIRE, asserting that “speech which violates a non-discrimination policy is not protected” by the First Amendment. Harvey also denied that the university had violated Daniel’s due process rights, and stated that “the recommended penalty against Jihad Daniel will stand as issued,” subject to yet another appeal by Daniel.
 
“Just as the university is free to sponsor events discussing the issue of homosexuality, Mr. Daniel must be free to dissent. To claim that a nondiscrimination policy trumps his First Amendment rights is dishonest and unlawful,” declared FIRE’s Lukianoff. “William Paterson and the attorney general have decided that Mr. Daniel is guilty until proven innocent. FIRE will continue to fight such illiberal actions until Mr. Daniel’s rights are vindicated.”
 
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
 
CONTACT:
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; david@thefire.org
Arnold Speert, President, William Paterson University: 973-720-2222; speerta@wpunj.edu
John I. Sims, Director, Office of Employment Equity and Diversity, William Paterson University: 973-720-2389; simsj@wpunj.edu