2015 Jefferson Muzzle Awards

April 21, 2015

By Hank Reichman at The Academe Blog

Since 1992 the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression at the University of Virginia has celebrated the birth and ideals of its namesake by calling attention each year to those who would censor free expression.  Announced on or near April 13—the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson—the Jefferson Muzzles are awarded as a means to draw national attention to abridgments of free speech and press and, at the same time, foster an appreciation for those tenets of the First Amendment. The Muzzles are a good-natured rebuke to all government officials, lest they forget or disregard Jefferson’s admonition that freedom of speech “cannot be limited without being lost.”

This year’s Muzzles highlight eight worthy violators of free expression, including the administrations of three institutions of higher education: Bergen Community College in New Jersey, Asnuntuck Community College in Connecticut, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Regular readers of this blog will surely recognize the actions that resulted in Illinois’ award.  The other two stories, however, may be less known.  They might be deemed funny, if they weren’t, alas, so increasingly typical.  Below, taken from the Center’s website, are descriptions of how these three higher education institutions received a 2015 Jefferson Muzzle.  For information on all eight Muzzle “honorees” go to http://tjcenter.org/muzzles/2015-muzzles/

Bergen Community College (NJ)
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.

The email, an automated notification sent to Schmidt’s Google+ contacts whenever he posted new content on his account, contained a photo of the professor’s young daughter doing yoga in a T-shirt reading “I will take what is mine in fire and blood.” Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones or the George R.R. Martin books upon which the series is based will immediately recognize the line as Daenerys Targaryan’s vow to reclaim her rightful place atop the throne in Martin’s fictional kingdom of Westeros. The quote is so iconic that it served as the tagline for an entire season of the hit show. Schmidt’s bosses, unfortunately, don’t appear to be fans.

Officials from human resources and the school’s security office questioned Schmidt to determine whether the automated email was intended as a threat against the dean. Schmidt says that officials pressed him on the source of the quote and questioned the popularity of Game of Thrones. One official instructed Schmidt to verify his claims by searching for the phrase on Google; the search returned more than four million results. Administrators nevertheless suspended Schmidt without pay and ordered him to see a psychiatrist before he would be allowed to return to campus.

When asked to defend their actions, school officials said only that three recent school shootings compelled them to investigate situations where someone “expresses a safety or security concern.” A photo of a seven-year-old fantasy enthusiast apparently fit this bill, particularly when, as noted by the college’s security director, William Corcoran, the “fire” mentioned on the shirt could have been “a kind of proxy for AK-47 fire.” (BCC seemingly appreciates this sort of out-of-the-box thinking; Corcoran has since been promoted!) For his part, Schmidt believes the threat angle was a red herring and that he was actually suspended in retaliation for a grievance he filed against the school two months earlier.

When news of his suspension surfaced last April, the college came under heavy fire (no threat intended) from free speech advocates, Game of Thrones fans, and proponents of common sense nationwide. The administration finally saw the light in September, when it rescinded the suspension and removed all mention of the incident from Schmidt’s personnel file. Director of Human Resources Patti Bonomolo sent a letter to Schmidt acknowledging that the college “may have lacked basis to sanction you” for posting the picture, and that in doing so “BCC may have unintentionally erred and potentially violated your constitutional rights.” As FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff noted, that’s like saying King Joffrey “may have been a less than ideal ruler.”

For demonstrating its collective cluelessness on two distinct levels, the administration of Bergen Community College is awarded a 2015 Jefferson Muzzle.

Asnuntuck Community College (CT)
While public colleges and universities may enforce certain rules regarding student conduct, such rules may not infringe upon protected speech. Over the past eighteen months, Connecticut’s Asnuntuck Community College (ACC) has repeatedly ignored this basic tenet of First Amendment law, resulting in the unconstitutional disciplining of a student and culminating in an official purge of critical commentary from the school’s social media accounts.

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.

Lombella proceeded to question Saucier in the presence of an ACC security officer who ultimately escorted Saucier off campus, instructing him not to return until he had spoken with Dean of Students Katie Kelley. Later that day, Kelley notified Saucier that he was “banned from the Asnuntuck Community College campus” pending a meeting to discuss the Malloy incident. Much—though not all—of this encounter was recorded as well.

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.”

A November 6, 2013 letter from Kelley further detailed the factual allegations against Saucier. Therein, ACC accuses Saucier of being “aggressive and hostile” during his conversation with Governor Malloy, claiming that Saucier “created a perceived threat” by becoming “increasingly escalated in [his] tone” and cursing at the Governor. Kelley went on to condemn Saucier’s interaction with President Lombella, suggesting that he had “demonstrated disrespect and aggression by swearing, screaming and approaching [Lombella’s] personal space.” The letter went so far as to claim that Saucier experienced an “increased fear of a threat” when Saucier retrieved from his bag a video camera “which was perceived to be a possible weapon.”

Noting that these allegations could result in his expulsion, ACC offered two options for resolving the charges. Saucier could either consent to a “written agreement in lieu of a hearing” which would require him to accept full responsibility for all charges against him and “voluntarily withdraw” from school, or he could defend himself at a formal hearing. Although Saucier opted for the hearing, it soon became clear that, in the words of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the entire process was “biased against him in a way practically guaranteed to result in a guilty finding.” FIRE has detailed numerous due process violations committed by ACC, including:

• Refusing to consider the exculpatory video evidence offered by Saucier;
• Failing to provide Saucier with an opportunity to review witness statements against him in advance;
• Giving Saucier less than fifteen minutes to review the evidence against him during the hearing;
• Rejecting Saucier’s attempts to directly refute the testimony of ACC’s witnesses; and
• Refusing to permit any recording of the proceedings, going so far as to prevent Saucier and his witness from writing a transcript by hand.

On November 19, Saucier was informed that he had been found guilty of all charges. While ACC did permit Saucier to return to campus, he was formally placed on probation and warned that “ANY future violations of the Expectations for Student Conduct, Board of Trustees Policy on Student Conduct, will likely result in Suspension or Expulsion from the College.”

Public attention was focused squarely on ACC when FIRE issued a press release detailing the school’s misdeeds on April 1, 2014. Observers from within the ACC community and beyond quickly took to ACC’s official Facebook page to register their concerns about the school’s apparent lack of respect for the First Amendment. Proving, if nothing else, that they are equal opportunity censors, ACC responded by systematically deleting each and every critical post from its page. Perhaps overwhelmed by the volume of negative posts, someone with administrative access to the account disabled new posts by other parties, meaning that critics could only comment by replying to one of ACC’s own posts. And reply they did; dozens of comments were posted—and quickly deleted—in the days that followed. As its final, cowardly piece de resistance, ACC removed its Facebook page entirely just as soon as word started getting out about the school’s campaign against its critics.

Screenshots preserved by vigilant and sharp-eyed observers will ensure that ACC can’t simply sweep these censorious shenanigans under the rug. Whether the school will step up to rectify the damage its policies have done to Nicholas Saucier remains to be seen. In any event, its actions have earned Asnuntuck Community College a 2015 Jefferson Muzzle.

The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
In a letter dated October 3, 2013, Steven Salaita, a professor in the English Department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (“Virginia Tech”) was offered a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was given an October 14 deadline to respond. On October 9, Salaita accepted the offer. In the ten months that followed, Salaita and his family prepared for the move from Virginia to Illinois. He resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, his wife resigned from her job, he and his family visited the Illinois campus in order to find a place to live, and, having found a place, initiated the process of purchasing it by making a nonrefundable payment of earnest money.

Having gone through these efforts and more, Professor Salaita was stunned when, less than two weeks before he was to begin teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign he received a letter from the Chancellor of the University Dr. Phyllis Wise, informing him that his offer of employment had been withdrawn. Although the letter offered no explanation for the University’s action, many quickly assumed it was a response to numerous controversial comments Salaita made on Twitter that were highly critical of Israel and its recent actions in the Gaza strip. This charge was strongly denied by Chancellor Wise in a statement she issued on August 22: “The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.” However, Chancellor Wise essentially conceded that the tweets were indeed the basis for the decision not because of what they said, but how they said it. “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal attacks and disrespectful words. . . . [a]s chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner.”

Chancellor Wise’s explanation is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. 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.” In letters and emails obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, many university donors expressed to Chancellor Wise their dismay with the views expressed by Salaita and their intention to withhold future financial support if he were allowed to work at the University.

The administration’s refusal to hear opposing viewpoints on this matter continues to the present. In December 2014, the University’s Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) issued a report finding fault with the University’s actions towards Professor Salaita. (This finding was consistent with an earlier vote of “no confidence” in the University administration by sixteen academic departments over its handling of this matter.) The CAFT report recommended that Professor Salaita’s appointment be remanded to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and that he be provided the opportunity to respond to any proposed findings of professional unfitness. On January 15, 2015, the University announced it would not implement the Committee’s recommendations.

Whether it was for the content or the tone of his tweets, it is clear that the administration of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign revoked Steven Salaita’s job offer for speech protected by the First Amendment and thereby earns a 2015 Jefferson Muzzle.

Schools: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Bergen Community College Asnuntuck Community College