NEWARK, N.J., January 18, 2013—Montclair State University has rescinded its suspension of student Joseph Aziz for violating an unconstitutional gag order that the university imposed on him after he made comments on social media. University President Susan A. Cole revoked the semester-long suspension in a letter to Aziz yesterday evening, three days after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) exposed Montclair State’s punishment to the public.
“While Montclair State never should have issued its unconstitutional gag order in the first place, we commend President Cole for acting swiftly to end the situation once it became public,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “Since this unwarranted suspension prevented Mr. Aziz from attending any classes, we expect that Montclair State will make accommodations to ensure that he can get into the classes he needs as soon as possible. We also expect that the university will make sure that this unjust punishment does not appear on his records.”
Aziz’s ordeal stemmed from comments he made to a YouTube video regarding the weight of a male and female student with whom he disagreed politically. In response, Montclair State issued an order prohibiting Aziz from having any contact with the female student and also unlawfully barred Aziz from making “any social media” comments about her. While Aziz did not contact the student after the order was issued, he later 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 she 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.”
Montclair State was informed of the comments and, at a campus judicial hearing, cleared Aziz of charges of harassment and disruptive conduct but found him guilty of violating the gag order. He was suspended for the spring 2013 semester, barred from campus under threat of arrest, and required to complete two educational “modules.”
Aziz came to FIRE for help. FIRE wrote to President Cole on January 4, 2013, pointing out that the gag order and subsequent punishment represented a serious violation of Aziz’s First Amendment rights. Receiving no response, FIRE took the case public on Monday. Yesterday evening, Aziz received Cole’s letter rescinding his punishment. In the letter, Cole wrote that because Montclair had found in December that Aziz had not violated any rules regarding harassment or disruptive conduct, the no-contact order he was punished for violating—which included the unconstitutional gag order at the center of the university’s case—should have been lifted. Cole revoked Aziz’s punishment and permitted him to return to class, effective immediately.
“Montclair State briefly tried to justify its decision by appealing to New Jersey’s anti-bullying law, but Aziz’s comments did not constitute bullying under the law’s definition of the term. Even if they had, Aziz’s speech still would have been protected by the First Amendment, which supersedes state law,” said FIRE’s Shibley. “While Montclair State recognized its error this time, several of the university’s policies could still be used to silence student speech in the future. FIRE would be pleased to work with President Cole to revise those policies to comply with the First Amendment, by which all public universities are legally and morally bound.”