Last night, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression announced the recipients of the 2015 “Jefferson Muzzle” awards, bestowed upon the worst government censors and punishers of protected speech in the past year. The TJ Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Charlottesville, Virginia, dedicated to protecting free speech. I worked for the TJ Center before coming to FIRE, and I saw firsthand how tough the competition for the Muzzle awards is each year—there are a depressingly large number of qualified nominees.
What happens when the people running your college don’t understand basic First Amendment principles or popular culture? Francis Schmidt, a professor at New Jersey’s Bergen Community College, knows all too well. Schmidt, a longtime professor of art and animation, was ordered to meet with college administrators one day after a dean at the school received an allegedly “threatening email” from Schmidt.
As it turns out, the “threatening email” was an auto-forwarded message from Google+ alerting Schmidt’s connections that he had uploaded a photo of his daughter in a T-shirt reading “I will take what is mine with fire & blood”—a quote from the HBO hit show Game of Thrones. “One official instructed Schmidt to verify his claims by searching for the phrase on Google,” the TJ Center writes; “the search returned more than four million results.” But despite Schmidt’s obvious harmlessness, he was placed on unpaid leave until he had a psychiatrist attest to his mental health, and an official warning was placed in his file.
Thankfully, after FIRE helped Schmidt get in touch with attorneys at the law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, BCC rescinded its punishment and admitted it may have “potentially violated” Schmidt’s rights. The TJ Center quotes FIRE President Greg Lukianoff in response: “Saying that Bergen Community College’s punishment of Francis Schmidt ‘may have lacked basis’ is like saying that King Joffrey may have been a less than ideal ruler.”
Also on this year’s list of Muzzle winners is Asnuntuck Community College in Connecticut, which earned a letter from FIRE after punishing a student for alleged threats that a video recordings show he never made. The TJ Center notes what the student caught on video:
ACC’s troubles began in October 2013, following Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy’s appearance at an on-campus employment conference offering local companies an opportunity to learn “how to expand their business and help veterans and state residents.” At the conclusion of the conference, an ACC student named Nicholas Saucier approached Governor Malloy to discuss his own experiences as a veteran and small business owner. As they walked to the Governor’s car, Saucier and Malloy spoke about the impact of recent gun legislation on Saucier’s business. As the conversation progressed, ACC’s Interim President James Lombella intervened, physically restraining Saucier and attempting to steer the student away from Malloy. Governor Malloy then stepped into his car, effectively ending the conversation, at which point Saucier called Malloy “a snake.” This sequence of events was recorded by Saucier, with consent from Governor Malloy.
Saucier was escorted off campus by an ACC security officer and, later that day, banned from campus by Dean of Students Katie Kelley. Things only got worse from there, as the TJ Center explains:
When they met several days later, Kelley explained ACC’s accusations against Saucier, alleging that he had caused a disruption and had acted in a threatening manner. When informed that Saucier possessed video recordings of the events in question which appeared to refute ACC’s claims, Kelley refused to view the videos, but did request that any copies of such recordings be turned over to school officials. At the conclusion of his meeting with Kelley, Saucier was placed on interim suspension on grounds that “[his] continued presence on campus would present a danger to the persons, property and/or academic process of the College.”
With no meaningful opportunity to defend himself, Saucier was ultimately found guilty of harassment and threats and placed on probation. ACC community members and free speech advocates took to the college’s Facebook page to criticize the administration—and ACC deleted each negative post. They kept popping up, though, leading ACC to finally remove its Facebook page altogether, only reinstating it after several months.
Finally, the TJ Center awards the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign a Muzzle for rescinding its job offer to Professor Steven Salaita after he posted a series of controversial tweets about Israel to his personal account. Chancellor Phyllis Wise cited concerns about “civility” in her statement on the matter. The TJ Center notes what was wrong with that approach:
First, regardless of how one feels about Professor Salaita’s tweets, they constitute political speech clearly protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, political speech does not lose its protection because others might object to its tone or manner. Second, seven years of highly positive teaching and scholarly evaluations for Professor Salaita belie the claim that he would ever be “uncivil” in a campus setting. None of Salaita’s comments were made on the Urbana-Champaign campus, nor were they directed to future colleagues and students. Third, Chancellor Wise’s failure to speak to Salaita himself, the hiring committee that vetted him, or the department that hired him, while listening extensively to his critics raises questions about her commitment to hearing “differing points of view.”
The University of Illinois Board of Trustees refused to reconsider its vote affirming Wise’s unwise decision, despite a recommendation from the university’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure that it do so.
Of course, there are many more Muzzle recipients worth reading about that fall outside the scope of FIRE’s mission—check them out over at the TJ Center’s website!