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Facing the Consequences of One’s Actions

A recent front-page story in the Herald News (another North Jersey Media Group paper) on FIRE’s case at William Paterson University contains some highly interesting tidbits. After a fairly straightforward exposition of the facts of the case, the piece turns to the professor whose complaint sparked the controversy:

“It creates a hostile environment,” she said of [Jihad Daniel’s] e-mail. “I teach about violence, and I know that violence is oftentimes preceded by verbal attacks.”

Verbal attacks? Have you read Daniel’s email? There was nothing “attacking” about it. He just stated his opinion.

Moreover, Scala’s comments on violence suggest that while she may teach about it, her knowledge certainly doesn’t include legal precedent. As FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus points out, violence has to be “imminent” in order for the speech causing it to be punished. For example, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a protester to say, “We’ll take the f—king street later,” since the “later” implied the violence was not imminent. Daniel’s email doesn’t come close to that permitted speech, let alone what would really be unprotected. And his comment to the paper strikes precisely the right tone:

Daniel, who lives in Hackensack, said that it was his right as a student of the university to express his opinion about an unsolicited e-mail. His religion teaches that the gay lifestyle is wrong, he said.

You can’t invite me to reply to something and then become offended when I respond in a way you don't want me to,” he said.

But the piece closes by pointing out that “Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay and lesbian rights political association, condemned Daniel’s remark and applauded the university’s reprimand.” Quoth Goldstein, “When someone speaks hatred in America, that person has to face the consequences of his actions.”

Which is of course true—but Goldstein is mistaken about what the “consequences” of offending others should be. As FIRE points out endlessly, the correct response to speech one abhors is not repression, but rather more speech. If what Daniel said is really so hateful, he will certainly hear about it from the public—outraged citizens will exercise their free speech rights just as he did his. He should not hear about it via official punishment.

And just imagine if the same standard used against Daniel were used against, say, gay pride parades: were someone “offended” by them, say on the basis of religion, the organizers could be convicted of “harassment.” Is that really what Garden State Equality wants? Because based on the New Jersey attorney general’s amazing application of the state’s nondiscrimination policy, of which Goldstein seems to approve, no controversial opinion is safe.

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