Did students go too far?

March 1, 2007

American colleges and universities have long regarded themselves as bastions of free speech and thought.
Last month, however, five students who were resident assistants from the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, including Jordan Marmara of Franklin Square, were fired as a result of a video they made parodying a Middle Eastern hostage taking. School officials deemed the video insensitive and relieved the five of residence hall duties. The students’ attorney, Frederick Brewington, said the firings mean they will no longer receive money toward tuition and meal plan privileges, which was their compensation for being resident assistants.
In the two-minute video, which the students’ attorney, Frederick Brewington, said was distributed on the Web site YouTube.com by a residence hall director who has since been fired, five figures dressed in black clothes and ski masks hold a Swiss Army knife to a rubber duck. Feigning Middle Eastern accents, they read a list of demands that include an iPod and 49 virgins in exchange for the duck. They say the “infidels” have one week or “if demands are not met, there will be other consequences.”
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based organization that protects freedom of speech on college campuses, a playful stab at humor was met with harsh action. “The presumption is that universities are one of free speech’s most protective institutions,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “Yet you have a bunch of students whose lives were turned upside down because of a satiric video they made about kidnapping a duck. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that’s ridiculous.”
Along with LIU administrators, members of the Muslim community did not view the video as ridiculous. Habeeb Ahmed of the Westbury-based Islamic Center of Long island did not return calls, but a statement on the center’s Web site said the video sends the wrong message.
“While we understand that such materials may have been produced by these resident advisors with a humorous intent we also recognize that such a depiction may be offensive and unnecessarily stereotype a particular group of people,” the statement read. “In addition, such characterizations can be offensive to the families of those who have suffered under circumstances similar to those depicted in the video. … By taking immediate action to address this situation, C.W. Post has recognized that the role of its resident advisors is to serve as role models to younger students, and accordingly, a racially insensitive video sends their wrong message to their peers.”
In a statement, C.W. Post Provost Joseph Shenker said the firings were based on the students’ lack of respect. “This is not an issue of free speech, but rather an issue of respect for others and insensitivity to acts of violence,” read Shenker’s statement. “We don’t find anything about terrorism and hostage-taking to be humorous. We insist on a campus where respect for others is demonstrated at all times.”
The students are suing C.W. Post for wrongful termination and discrimination, the latter claim based on the fact that female R.A.’s made a similar video after the first one aired and were not fired. The female students were placed on probation for their actions, Brewington said.
“The decision-makers happens to be women, and treated the men different,” Brewington told the Herald. “In my opinion, they were treated improperly and surreptitiously. This purports to be a place of free thinking and an exchanging of ideas.”
C.W. Post officials did not return calls for comment. “The matter is in litigation, and we cannot comment at this time,” Rita Langdon, C.W. Post’s associate provost and director of public relations, said in an e-mail.
On Feb. 10, the students publicly apologized for the video and said they would like to discuss tolerance with Muslim leaders at the Islamic Center of Long Island. The Herald’s calls to Marmara, a senior, went unreturned. “He’s a wonderful, wonderful young man, a leader, smart, polite and respectful,” Brewington said. “He has made it clear he’s sorry.”

Brewington also said that Marmara has no plans to transfer to another school. “He will not transfer,” Brewington said. “He did nothing to run from.”

Samantha Harris, FIRE’s legal director, said she hopes the lawsuit will have a ripple affect in administrative offices of colleges and universities across the country. “Perhaps this suit will give pause to administrators at other universities before they take harsh actions and throw around harsh terminology merely because students have exercised their right to free speech in a manner distasteful to the university,” Harris wrote on the organization’s Web site. “Too often college administrators act as if they operate in a vacuum, free of the constraints of the law, and frankly it is refreshing to see these people having to account for their actions in the real world.”