NOTE: The article excerpted on this page is from an outside publication and is posted on FIRE's website because it references FIRE's work. The viewpoints expressed in this article do not necessarily represent FIRE's positions.
Jihad Daniel, a student employee at William Paterson University in New Jersey, got an unsolicited e-mail from Professor Arlene Holpp Scala, chairwoman of the department of women’s studies.
It was an invitation to view and discuss a film described as “a lesbian relationship story.”
Daniel responded privately in a return e-mail, requesting he not be solicited in the future with “any mail about ‘Connie and Sally’ and ‘Adam and Steve.'”
“These are perversions,” he wrote March 8. “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.”
Two days later, 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.” The little twit said 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 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 was found guilty – without a hearing – 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.
No due process. No free speech.
But it gets worse.
Daniel turned for help to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
FIRE appealed Speert’s decision on obvious First Amendment grounds. On July 5, FIRE wrote Speert 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.”
But the president of the university 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’s punishment of Mr. Daniel is a direct attack on freedom of speech,” said David French, president of FIRE. “For the university to convict a student of ‘harassment’ for sending a single, non-threatening e-mail dangerously trivializes real harassment.”
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.
I take a special interest in this case, not just as someone who uses the First Amendment on a daily basis.
I also take special interest in this case because William Paterson University is my alma mater. It’s the place I learned my craft as a student journalist. I served as editor in chief of the student newspaper at William Paterson. In fact, as a student journalist there, I helped relieve Arnold Speert’s predecessor from office for corruption. Additionally, last year, William Paterson honored me with its annual Distinguished Alumni Award for my achievements in practicing the art of the First Amendment. It was Arnold Speert who handed me that award.
Let me go on the record as saying I support not only Daniel’s “right” to do what he did. I support the principle behind his action. I support the content of what he wrote. And if William Paterson University is going to penalize a student employee for his opinions, maybe it ought to revoke my Distinguished Alumni Award, too.