NEWARK, N.J., January 14, 2013—Montclair State University has suspended a student for violating an unconstitutional gag order placed on him by school administrators. Joseph Aziz was suspended and barred from campus effective January 2, as the result of unflattering social media comments he made regarding a fellow student on a politically charged YouTube video. Following an unsuccessful appeal, Aziz came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"Insensitive jokes are a fact of life, especially when political disagreements are at issue. Just ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie," said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. "That's no excuse for Montclair State to shred the First Amendment by engaging in prior restraint."
Aziz's ordeal stemmed from weight-related comments he made to a YouTube video regarding a male and female student with whom he disagreed politically. (The male student features prominently in the video.) While the comments have since been deleted, they were apparently reported to Montclair State. On October 9, 2012, Aziz was issued a "University No-Contact Order" (UNCO) that forbade him from having any contact with the female student. In a letter informing Aziz of the UNCO, Montclair State Coordinator of Student Conduct Jerry S. Collins did not cite any specific instances of alleged misconduct or specify what policies Aziz was suspected of violating. Nevertheless, Collins barred Aziz from all physical, verbal, and electronic contact with the student he had referred to in his comments. The UNCO also included a gag order forbidding the posting of "any social media regarding" the student in question.
Shortly thereafter, Aziz posted a number of comments complaining about the incident, the student, and the gag order on the wall of a private Facebook group to which the female student did not have access. Among other statements, Aziz joked about escaping the student's "tyrannical ham lock." This was apparently a reference to the fact that the gag order was issued in response to his earlier comment that the individual's legs resembled "bleached hams."
The following month, Aziz received notice from Assistant Director for Housing Assignments Kevin Schafer that these Facebook comments had been reported to administrators and that he had been charged with violations of college policies on "Disruptive Conduct," "Failure to Comply," "Harassment," "Violation of Written University Policy, Regulations and Announcements," and "Abuse of the Conduct System." After a university conduct hearing in December, Aziz was cleared of three of the five allegations. The university nevertheless found him responsible for charges of "Failure to Comply" and "Violation of Written University Policy" because his Facebook posts—though made to a private group—were deemed to be a violation of the UNCO's ban on "any social media" comments regarding the fellow student.
Aziz was suspended from Montclair State for the spring semester, barred from campus under threat of arrest, and required to complete two educational "modules." Despite Aziz's appeal, Vice President for Student Development and Campus Life Karen Pennington upheld both the UNCO and the suspension on December 18.
FIRE wrote to Montclair State President Susan A. Cole on January 4, 2013, pointing out that the no-contact order and subsequent punishment represented a serious violation of Aziz's rights. Noting that the original rationale for the no-contact order—two weight-related comments posted on YouTube—was itself questionable, FIRE explained that the UNCO had unconstitutionally restricted Aziz's ability to discuss his situation, including in private social media discussions.
FIRE also noted that Aziz's punishment was grossly disproportionate to his supposed violations of university policies. As the university had determined Aziz's behavior did not in fact constitute harassment, disruptive conduct, or abuse, his suspension is based solely on the violation of the unconstitutional gag order. Simply put, Aziz has been barred from campus for discussing his case and defying an unjust administrative decree.
"As an agency of the government, Montclair State has no power to order students not to discuss any topic or person on independent social media sites like Facebook," said FIRE's Shibley. "If President Nixon couldn't use prior restraint to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers, why in the world does Montclair State University think it can use prior restraint to stop students from joking around on Facebook?"
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.