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Remembering the Principles at Stake in the Jihad Daniel Case

The response to the remarkable case at William Paterson University has been overwhelming. FIRE has received dozens of thoughtful and eloquent emails arguing that it is simply outrageous that WPU, a public university, did not show the same respect for free speech for Jihad Daniel’s point of view as it did for professor Arlene Holpp Scala’s. Sadly, a tiny minority of the responses to WPU have not been so eloquent or thoughtful, but rather rely on crude attacks on homosexuality instead of upon the essential and universal principles of liberty at stake in this case.

FIRE, of course, believes everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and the law protects “unreasonable” opinions or ones based in pure emotion just as it protects the works of Voltaire. However, FIRE’s “sunlight” approach to challenging the illiberal abuses in higher education relies on public condemnation and persuasion. When college presidents receive well-reasoned emails, letters and calls from the public they are often genuinely challenged. When they receive angry emails based in bigotry against a group, the effect may be quite the opposite. Rather than defending the right of free speech, the university can claim the moral high ground in protecting its students and faculty from “ignorance and intolerance.” Of course, even this argument does not explain away the selective censorship practiced by WPU (devout believers who, like Daniel, are punished for stating their beliefs have an equally credible claim of being the victim of “ignorance and intolerance”), but, regardless, those who call universities to task for failing to live up to their principles are far more likely to be successful than those relying on ugly appeals to gross stereotypes.

And make no mistake about it, had the situation been reversed and WPU sough to punish Scala for sending that unsolicited email FIRE would have proudly defended Professor Scala. Given New Jersey’s ridiculously broad anti-discrimination law and the state attorney general’s wild interpretation of that law it is not hard to imagine a religious student, like Daniel, actually bringing charges against Scala for “harassment on the basis of religion.” In fact, this counterfactual reveals another reason why WPU’s actions are so outrageous. Not so long ago a student or professor sending out an announcement promoting a positive view of homosexuality could have been stopped or punished by more conservative administrations for “indecency” or some other charge. Today, both the campus climate and the law protect the right of professors like Scala to advocate for her point of view, but, unfortunately, people like Scala have forgotten that the very principle that protects her right to send those emails ought not to have been denied to Jihad Daniel. Dissent is our most essential right and if we deny it to those we most fundamentally disagree with, we don’t honor it at all.

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