The FIRE, admirable campus First Amendment watchdog and champion that it is, is once again charging to the rescue of an innocent student being subjected to censorship, oppression and mind-control by a Stalinist state university…in new Jersey. Its victory is pre-ordained, as you will shortly see. The troubling questions are: Why are there schools in a democracy that act like Montclair State, presuming to tell students how to speak to each others and what views they can communicate in public? How do administrators that make and enforce such manifestly unethical and unconstitutional rules get hired in higher education—indeed, how are they bred at all? Finally, what vile and totalitarian principles does a school run by such dictators teach its students?
The facts of the case warrant little debate. Montclair State, in northeastern New Jersey, suspended Joseph Aziz, a 26-year-old graduate student, for comparing another student’s legs to “a pair of bleached hams” in a YouTube comment and defying a resulting ban on his internet speech. After his YouTube comments came to the attention of the school, Montclair State Coordinator of Student Conduct Jerry S. Collins barred Aziz from all physical, verbal, and electronic contact with the student he had referred to in his YouTube comments. He also issued a virtual gag order, forbidding Aziz from posting on “any social media regarding” the student in question.
Yes, a state school administrator really thinks he has the power to tell students what they can and cannot post on Facebook.
As I would, Aziz immediately posted sharply-worded comments regarding the episode, the student, and the gag order on a private Facebook group page to which the female student did not have access. Someone with access to the site, probably a student whose experience at Montclaire had thoroughly indoctrinated him or her in the virtues of thought control and censorship, as well as the infallible wisdom of Big Dean, reported Aziz to the administration. Aziz was notified by Assistant Director for Housing Assignments Kevin Schafer that his “illegal” Facebook comments had been reported to administrators and that he had been charged with violations of college policies. A university hearing determined that his conduct was a violation of the school’s ban on his making “any social media” comments regarding the fellow student.
All of this is a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, as any 6th grader should be able to figure out. This is a state school (the same conduct by a non-state school is just an abuse of power, as well as cosmically arrogant and stupid), and the state cannot infringe on an individual’s speech. This wasn’t even campus speech, yet school officials suspended Aziz for the semester and threatened him with arrest if he set foot on campus during that time.
The case is tailor-made for FIRE, which has written to Montclair State explaining what should be obvious to any American who doesn’t have the handicap of a degree from that school. “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,” wrote FIRE. “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?”
Yes, and also “Duh.” Again, the result of this episode is pre-ordained. The real issue is where this strain of free speech hostility is coming from, how in infects high places, and why we tolerate it.
Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at firstname.lastname@example.org.