In Arabic, “jihad” means “struggle.” On March 8, 2005, 63-year-old Jihad Daniel began his own struggle when he faced, yet again, an inbox flooded with unwanted university announcements and mass emails. A little irritated by the proliferation of announcements in his inbox that he never signed up for, he encountered one email promoting a film about a “lesbian relationship story” that he felt called for a response. Indeed, the email itself had a prominent “mail to” line that linked to an email address belonging to the organizer of the event.
Not knowing who the organizer was, or even whether or not that person identified as a lesbian herself, Daniel proceeded to reply. His subject line was “Homosexuality” and his email began, “Do not send me any mail about ‘Connie and Sally’ and ‘Adam and Steve.’” Daniel continued, “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.”
Daniel, a devout Muslim who has worked at William Paterson University for almost 15 years, felt it was appropriate and fair to state his religious objections when opting out of receiving email announcements that promoted a positive view of homosexuality. He wanted to make it clear that such unsolicited emails were never welcome in his inbox. Also, as a communication and media studies master’s student, Daniel felt secure that he had done the right thing by expressing his dissent and letting whomever had emailed him know that he did not want to receive any more emails—and why. He firmly believed in exercising his First Amendment rights, and, in fact, had learned in depth about those very concepts as a student at William Paterson: he had taken a course at the university about constitutional law and the media.
Unfortunately, in June the university charged him with “discrimination” and “harassment” for this one-time email to a professor he never even met because the professor, who turned out to be the chair of the women’s studies department, didn’t want to “feel threatened at [her] place of work when [she] send[s] out announcements about events that address lesbian issues.” Daniel attempted to defend himself and appeal the charges with reason and by asserting that he had First Amendment rights equal to any other individual on campus. However, he was found guilty as charged without even a fair hearing, and he was told that the charges would be placed in his permanent employee file.
Incredibly, in his letter of reprimand to Daniel, the president of the university claimed, “[S]ince the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of ‘perversion’…is clearly a ‘derogatory or demeaning’ term as it was used in your email to refer to gay or lesbian individuals, that you violated the Interim State of New Jersey Policy Prohibiting Discrimination, Harassment or Hostile Environment in the Workplace.” In his response to Daniel’s appeal, he further revealed, “Not every utterance is protected under the [F]irst [A]mendment. Whether the State’s policy that prohibits ‘derogatory and / or demeaning’ comments is at odds with constitutional protections of free speech is beyond the scope of this finding.” Apparently, the university president chose to ignore the fact that as a public university, William Paterson is bound to uphold the U.S. Constitution, and that no “interim state policy”—or any other local, university, or state regulation—can trump the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Daniel had even written in his defense (quoted in FIRE’s July 5 letter to William Paterson University), “I responded to the unsolicited email as a student and in conjunction with the tenets embodied in the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. You cannot invite me to reply to something and then become offended because I do not respond the way you want me [to].” And in his appeal, he questioned:
How and what [c]ourt of [l]aw would you charge someone with a dictionary definition? I used my [c]onstitutional First Amendment right of [f]reedom [e]xpression to make a statement about a situation and clarified why I felt that way i.e., “It conflicted with my [r]eligious [b]eliefs.” That was it! I [p]ut my idea in the market place of ideas along with many others. Universities and institutions of higher learning are known for their tolerance and ope[n]ness to all ideas, hence “[t]he market place of ideas.”
Despite Daniel’s efforts to use common sense to convince the university of his right to free speech and of his innocence, William Paterson continued to punish him—without even giving him a fair hearing before finding him guilty. FIRE intervened with a letter in July (including the Office for Civil Rights July 28, 2003, letter, which provides the true and accurate definition of unlawful harassment) in hopes that the university then would realize the absurdity of the charges and end its unfair treatment of Daniel. Instead, the attorney general of New Jersey responded to FIRE by staunchly defending the university’s decision and re-emphasizing the troubling claim that “[c]learly speech which violates a non-discrimination policy is not protected” by the First Amendment.
As FIRE stated in our letter and in today’s press release, William Paterson’s and the attorney general’s decision blatantly contradicts decades of Supreme Court precedent, and the university and the state cannot choose to ignore the First Amendment whenever it becomes inconvenient. In a blatant violation of the right to free speech, religious freedom, and due process, the university and the attorney general have deemed Daniel as guilty until proven innocent. Along with Jihad Daniel, FIRE will continue to struggle against such injustice.