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.
22 thoughts on “The FIRE To The Rescue Again: But How Can This Keep Happening In U.S. Schools?”
Juicy ethical topic. Troubling questions in order:
The pressures of being politically correct, as enforced by unethical bullies, often outweigh the pressure of holding true to other higher order values. They get into positions of authority because caving to said pressure has become so common place as to be acceptable behavior.
Finally, they perpetuate the cycle and produce an uninterrupted stream of PC enforcers, who have neither the wit to see that their enforcement is hypocritical nor ethics enough to see why.
Dammit, Jack, why do you do this to me? I’ve got a mountain of work to get done this week, and now you make me write up a Curmie nominee.
Life is hard.
By the way, the university has already reversed course.
But if it just saves one student from having their feelings hurt, isn’t it worth it?
That gag reflex hurts.
Reversed course? Only until next time. The important factor to note here is that these leftist diploma mills can be quickly brought to heel with someone speaking up and getting a national audience.
How long that state of affairs will continue, God only knows. But these mind-control educrats are still shy of this kind of exposure. What’s needed are more guys like Aziz and more groups like FIRE to jump down the throats of every college in the country that’s run by old hippie rejects who think they can get away with this sort of thing forever.
The state colleges are particularly vulnerable to exposure, too. In the end, they depend on monies allotted by the legislatures and procured from the taxpayers. A lot of those taxpayers (especially those who are parents of college age kids) aren’t going to appreciate it when they learn that the tuitions they’re paying go to depravity and political indoctrination at Lenin State University.
Okay. First off, I want to note that Aziz’s behavior was problematic. I’ve gone back and looked at as many of the comments in question as I could (several are no longer available) and want to make this absolutely clear: I’m firmly convinced that he’s an asshole. He all but confesses to this in one of his comments, actually, so we can take that as close to fact. He was being a troll and admits it.
This isn’t to say that the actions taken against him were appropriate. They weren’t, and I’m not defending the university’s actions.
That said, however, this is politely describable as an ethical clusterfuck. Aziz started by trolling, acting inappropriately, and arguably harassing a fellow student. Is this something that we can defend him for? No — but the school’s response was unethically disproportionate and, as noted, a violation of his right to free speech. Had it simply been a pure “stay away from her” order, my interpretations would be a bit different (although I’d still think it was disproportionate — a more appropriate action would be to simply speak to the kid and tell him to knock it off… or even to simply not get involved as university officials).
And then we get into Ms. Collins’s involvement. While I can certainly understand the impulse to go after a troll, there are far more appropriate, not to mention clever, responses (e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uz2jbCJXkpA ).
“Arguably harassment”—give me a break! He insulted her once. That’s not harassment by any legal of logical definition, and even it it were, what he says on YouTube—or Facebook– is none of the school’s business, period. Sure, his comments were mean. So what? He has every right to make mean comments, just as she has every right to give him back as good as she gets. His civility and decorum is irrelevant, and saying that the school’s actions were “disproportionate” accepts that they had any appropriate action to take at all, other than backing off. They didn’t. He was being an asshole…fine, he has a Constitutional right to be an asshole. Tom Paine was an asshole. John Adams was an asshole. The school is the party engaging ion dangerous abuse of state power here. You shouldn’t confuse the issue.
It is, at the least, provoking her… and is, again, by his own admission part of a systematic pattern of behavior on his part. Moreover, if you think he was the *only* person to make such a comment, I’ll have to call you hopelessly naive. When I say that his behavior was arguably harassment… the overall pattern almost certainly is. The only question is to what extent one person — i.e. Mr. Aziz — can be held responsible for contributing to it.
And while your point that Thomas Paine and John Adams were abrasive is well-taken, they were, frankly, not in the habit of deliberately provoking people to see their reactions. Had they tried, they would have been shot (possibly, but hardly certainly, in a duel) long before they accomplished the assorted works they were famous for.
To make that comparison is to massively underestimate the magnitude of what I am talking about. He not only provoked the dean *during his own disciplinary hearing*, but then *bragged about doing so in public*, *insulting school administrators in the process*. Moreover, his own statements indicate that this is part of a consistent pattern of behavior on his part.
So — yes, I can very much see the school administration getting frustrated and wanting to smack the obnoxious little shit (as they would probably think of him) down.
Does this make the decision ethical? No — as I observed. Should they have done nothing, however? Again — no. You seem to forget that they are *educators*, who Mr. Aziz has *paid* to help prepare him for his future career.
Put another way, they have an obligation — ironically to Mr. Aziz himself — to *teach* him. This includes teaching him about social mores, such as the fact that future employers will look very poorly on his conduct. This is especially true given that his actions create a permanent, identifiable record which said employers will very likely take a look at.
And if he learns this, understands this, and continues… well, that’s his right.
Their actions, however, were sufficiently extreme that it’s very difficult to argue that they served this goal. They were, in other words, unjustifiably disproportionate to the situation… which gets back to my initial assessment.
They have no obligation as well as no right and no legitimate business to teach him—a grad student, no less— how to function off campus. I reject that notion completely. They have no more right to dictate his social networking activity than to dictate hygiene, vernacular, dress choices and modes of transportation away from the campus. Whether his trolling is part of a larger targeted effort at the woman is irrelevant. Not the school’s business. Aside from the authority, which they do not have, school administrators also don’t have the expertise to dictate non-campus speech and conduct. He pays them to educate him in his areas of study, not to brush his teeth, give his seats to the elderly on the bus or to not act like a dickweed. In short, they have a right to do nothing. They don’t even have a right to comment on what he writes on line, or threaten him in any way.
Bullshit. The fact that he’s a grad student, as opposed to an undergrad, only reinforces my point. Things like the standards of the profession he’s going into — notably including said profession’s social mores — are important parts of the curriculum.
Colleges *teach this*. Even without getting into classes directly on the subject, grad programs almost inevitably involve a mentoring component (and, depending on the field, there are often explicit lists of what the mentor is responsible for teaching — often including… surprise, surprise,,, professional conduct and the standards of the profession). Mentors are also often responsible — independently of the content of these lists — for a number of tasks commonly performed by career counselors (whose services colleges *also* almost inevitably employ for their students).
And while I can’t comment on Mr. Aziz’s program due to not knowing which one it is and thus being unable to look it up, many graduate programs embed said mores (in the forms of standards of professional conduct) within the program itself.
Then, of course, we get into the university’s other related responsibilities, like ensuring that the school remains a safe learning environment for its students… which is pretty much how they rationalized their behavior.
But almost all of this is irrelevant to my point: Aziz was hardly a hero in this (and was/is a major problem student, and an embarrassment to the university). This makes the school’s behavior no less problematic (and no less unethical) — but does need to be taken into account when we discuss what’s going on. Quite frankly, this seems to be a massive example of what you’d refer to as the “tit for tat excuse” going on (e.g. see the administrators’ comments at http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2013/01/16/montclair-student-suspended-over-comments-on-youtube-video/ ), possibly with what you’d refer to as ethical vigilantism as well.
This is part of why I referred to this as an “ethical clusterfuck” — everybody’s discarding their ethics and screwing everybody else.
The thing is, the fact that he’s been behaving unethically, being an obnoxious asshole, and even apparently being a massive problem student in general does not make respecting his right to free speech any less important. In fact, it’s at precisely these times when such respect is *most* important.
What does YouTube snark have to do with professional social mores? The school doesn’t have the authority, the power, or the right to interfere with a student’s private life, and this was private conduct. You’re miles off the mark. A school can’t tell a student how to conduct himself in a marriage, in the bedroom, or in private phone conversations—or on his private social media accounts, regardless of who can see them. I belong to one of the most professionally regulated of professions, and no legal regulatory body or law school would dare to presume to approve of what you’re minimizing, which is pure, naked, Big Brotherism. Outrageous.
Nodody here says Aziz is a hero. He’s an uncivil jerk; if he acted like that and was living in my house, I’d take his computer away…but then, I’d be his father. The school isn’t his father, and has no business, absolutely none, acting like it.
They have quite a lot to do with each other in many professions. While I can’t comment on Aziz’s field in particular, since I don’t know what it is, professional ethics codes often contain a number of statements dealing with public behavior… and, make no mistake, his comments were *public* conduct.
And that’s without getting into the matter of many professions holding the belief that practitioners have obligations to the profession itself.
But, again, this is irrelevant. I didn’t argue that the school had a right to dictate how to conduct himself on his social media accounts (although they *do* have both a right and obligation to do so within certain limits, none of which are relevant here — we’re not talking about him violating HIPAA or anything like that). What I did say was that the school should have ensured — preferably in private — that he knew that his behavior could interfere with his ability to get a job in his field. This set of actions goes *incredibly* far beyond that and has all the signs of someone losing their temper.
Talking to the guy about the effect of inappropriate social media postings on his career? Sure—responsible mentoring. Saying they have a right to advise him, even informally admonish him, regarding his private/public conduct and suggesting that the school has any business taking action against him or attempting to control the conduct are very different.
When you wrote “Should they have done nothing, however? Again — no. You seem to forget that they are *educators*, who Mr. Aziz has *paid* to help prepare him for his future career. Put another way, they have an obligation — ironically to Mr. Aziz himself — to *teach* him. This includes teaching him about social mores, such as the fact that future employers will look very poorly on his conduct. This is especially true given that his actions create a permanent, identifiable record which said employers will very likely take a look at.“…I took that to mean an endorsement of official, substantive action, as in official reprimands or other sanctions.
Now that you’ve clarified that you mean advice and instruction only—fine. I have no disagreement with that. They can also advise and instruct regarding his dress, hygiene and speech.
As an addendum (to address a potential misunderstanding that I saw when misreading my comment): There is one group involved who is behaving ethically: FIRE.
Agree, agree, agree. What a noble and terrific group they are!
Why can’t she stick up for herself? Does the university see her as weak? The university charging in to protect a student from a comment that her legs look like bleached hams? Really? Every time I read one of these posts I think I’ve read it all, and then along comes something even more incredible.
Welcome to my world.
Planet Academia, lost in time and space.
Trust me, I see worse than this on a regular basis. After spending a good bit of last year trying to deal with a group of parents who thought it would be a good idea to give their kids bleach enemas (no, not joking), spending some of it working the most obnoxious ivory tower academic ethics cock up imaginable (ironically involving an ethicist writing an obnoxiously unethical ethics text) into my master’s thesis… yeah. This doesn’t surprise me.
Like I said in my previous post! Alex, you’ve won my sympathy. How do you take that sort of thing and stay sane? “Bleach enemas”? That sounds like something I saw on a site that flirted with pedophilia!
I take a surprisingly large amount of crap in my life. I’ve gotten relatively used to it. While I can’t discuss some of the things I’ve done over the years in a forum that’s this public, I can assure you that sitting through a… I think it was four or five hours… series of testimonials to the glories of bleach was actually relatively mild.
If you really want to learn more, google “MMS autism”. You’ll find out much more than you ever wanted to. If you want to focus on decent articles, I suggest “MMS autism orac” as your search, however — Orac is the penname of a notable skeptic and will help avoid the crazier pieces.
Thanks for the tip.