About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
« previous entry | return home | next entry »

July 21, 2005 [feather]
Viewpoint discrimination at William Paterson

It's been a busy week at FIRE--first a press release criticizing Washington State's confusion of "vigilante censorship" with free expression and documenting FIRE's hitherto unsuccessful efforts to convince Washington State president Rawlins that he has woefully misunderstood the First Amendment, and now a press release going public with a case of viewpoint discrimination at William Paterson University:


WAYNE, N.J., July 20, 2005--William Paterson University in New Jersey has convicted student employee Jihad Daniel of "discrimination" and "harassment"--without due process--for describing homosexuality as a "perversion" in a private response to a professor's unsolicited announcement of a university event that promoted a positive view of lesbian relationships.

"William Paterson's punishment of Mr. Daniel is a direct attack on freedom of speech," remarked David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which intervened on Daniel's behalf. "For the university to convict a student of 'harassment' for sending a single, non-threatening e-mail dangerously trivializes real harassment."

Daniel's "offense" took place on March 8, 2005, when he responded to an unsolicited e-mail from Professor Arlene Holpp Scala, chair of the department of women's studies, about a viewing and discussion of a film described as "a lesbian relationship story." Daniel privately replied to Professor Scala, requesting that he not be sent "any mail about 'Connie and Sally' and 'Adam and Steve.'" Daniel went on, "These are perversions. The absence of God in higher education brings on confusion. That is why in these classes the Creator of the heavens and the earth is never mentioned."

On March 10, Professor Scala filed a complaint with the university's Office of Employment Equity and Diversity, accusing Daniel of violating university nondiscrimination policy because his message "sound[ed] threatening" and because she didn't want to "feel threatened at [her] place of work when [she] send[s] out announcements about events that address lesbian issues."

Director of Employment Equity and Diversity John I. Sims subsequently proceeded to "investigate" Scala's complaint. On June 15, William Paterson President Arnold Speert wrote Daniel a letter of reprimand, stating that "the investigator concluded that since the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of 'perversion' ... is clearly a 'derogatory or demeaning' term," Daniel therefore was guilty of violating state discrimination and harassment regulations. The president also wrote that the letter of reprimand would be placed in Daniel's permanent employee file.

FIRE has been defending Daniel since that letter went into the file, but hasn't gotten anywhere. President Speert claims that FIRE's constitutional argument is "beyond the scope" of the university's investigation, and has allowed Daniel's punishment to stand. When FIRE pushed the issue with Speert, the New Jersey Attorney General got involved, upholding the university's determination that "speech which violates a non-discrimination policy is not protected."

I do hope that in both these instances FIRE's decision to go public--and hence to enlist the shaming exposure of the media and the castigation of concerned citizens--will do the work that private efforts at reasonable remonstration have failed to do. Neither Washington State's nor William Paterson's actions have been fair or well-conceived, and in both cases the palpable urge to privilege certain viewpoints over others has led to a disturbing distortion of the free and unfettered expression that both schools, as public, federally funded entities, are required by law to protect. In the one case, an undernuanced notion of free speech has led to censorship by heckler's veto; in the other, a politically loaded conception that some viewpoints are more or less legitimate than others has led to a trampling of due process rights, a vast overexpansion of what constitutes harassment, and a situation in which discrimination is being committed in the name of stamping it out.

FIRE is invaluable in the work it does to track such outrages and to defend the people whose rights are compromised by college and university administrators. But FIRE can only do so much--it's a small organization, and though it maintains a legal network, it is not itself in the business of litigating. When FIRE reasons with unreasonable administrators and gets nowhere, as it has done with Washington State and William Paterson, it has both done its job and largely exhausted its resources. When FIRE goes public with unresolved cases, the message ought to be clear to everyone who cares about the work the organization does: It is now time for the media and for private concerned citizens to become involved by refusing to let the issues die.

posted on July 21, 2005 3:40 AM








Comments:

A university can neither "convict" a person in a legal sense nor can it strip a person of his right to due process. Mr. Daniel cannot be asked to serve time for his comments without a trial; to make him do so would, in this case, be a violation of his right to due process.

Imagine Karl Rove telling Condi Rice that he does not want to receive any more invitations to her "Afro" dinner parties and that the celebration of "African" (or Russian?) culture is a //perversion// of America. Now imagine that GWB fires Rove on the basis that Rice's felt threated and discriminated against, and all of the big cheese advisors agree. Rove is out; and, notably, he is neither "convicted" nor is he deprived of his rights to due process.

On another note, I think that FIRE's action in this case is sad. Mr. Daniel's freedom of speech has not been curbed. Get it right. He can speak in general about anything he wants; he cannot, however, intimidate particular persons.

Posted by: Basil at July 21, 2005 12:37 PM



What trouble's me is that harassment is a power-abuse offense. Say what you will about its abuse (as is the case here), it is a valid part of the HR environment.

And here, it is being used by someone with institutional empowerment against someone with little power just to shut 'em up.

Here we have an associate prof (tenured or untenured I am not sure but still irrelevent) calling up via "harassment" that a lowest-of-the-low student-on-payroll (an at-will employee who, if things there are like here, lacks the local institutional protection of an assistanship-based funding source) is attacking her job position, rank and person mearly by disagreeing with her on a matter of open contention in society. Is she so unable to defend her position that she acutally feels endangered by a contrarian viewpiont from a ... sorry... grunt?

I don't agree one but with this student's opinion but I have no respect for the faculty member or any person down the chain that let this one go.

Posted by: Bill at July 21, 2005 12:59 PM



It's becoming pretty clear that many of today's academics are just not comfortable with the whole idea of free speech. Various theories could be suggested to explain why this is the case. But the problem is that America's universities represent, to a substantial extent, an archipelago of aspiring tyrannies. I am concerned that the growth of higher education, in the form that it exists today, may be inconsistent with the idea of a free society.

Posted by: David Foster at July 21, 2005 3:36 PM



If the student/employee is recieving unwanted sexual material from the faculty, perhaps he should bring a harassment complaint (hostile working environment created by promotion of sexual activities type).

"Uncomfortable" cuts both ways.

Posted by: krm at July 21, 2005 4:03 PM



From a Paterson Web page:

"Dr.Arlene Holpp Scala is the chair of the Women's Studies Department at WPUNJ. She has been teaching Women's Studies since 1986. She has published articles on gender, class, and pedagogy. Her current research is on femme identities and on college students' memories of the Barbie Doll. She and her partner Donna live in Englewood with their three cats and are frequently visited by their six children."

This issue takes on a whole 'nother slant if the student was aware of Scala's sexual orientation (and the public nature of the above bio makes that quite plausible) while making the perversion comment.

Posted by: erica at July 22, 2005 10:56 AM



Erica.

He probably didn't. Having been spammed on campus email on "come to our seminar which most people on campus won't give a squat about," "someone left their lights on," "does anyone have an extra steelcase desk?" and "we have an extra steelcase desk" (followed by the obligatory email just 2 minutes after the first one) "the steelcase desk is gone!" (which earned the campus a parody by me regarding some cement blocks, which got both praise and complaints), you don't look up the vita on people who clog your already busy email account with the twaddle of the day. You either hit delete, or flame them back.

If their email system is anything like ours, Scala should, however, be grateful that he didn't add it to the local campus spam folder (to which most faculty don't contribute nor read, but still reap the benefits).

Posted by: Bill at July 22, 2005 11:50 AM



Scala "didn't want to 'feel threatened at [her] place of work when [she] send[s] out announcements about events that address lesbian issues.'"

Maybe she should consider her audience.

Posted by: Laura at July 22, 2005 5:52 PM



Seems a shame. Had Scala added two words -- "I believe these are a perversion. ..." the entire meaning is changed from a perceived threat (sorry, I don't see it) to a protected statement of beliefs.

Now why is it a college student doesn't see these nuances? Is it perhaps because a professor is busy finding students (apparently outside her classes, since it's unlikely a student with these beliefs would take one of these classes) threatening instead of determining how to *teach* them?

Posted by: Tess at July 22, 2005 10:43 PM



Unfortunately, such unsolicited emails often fly about the humanities departments of Academia. That's fine, though they are usually very lop-sided in their politics and values. Again, fine. But to have someone request to be removed from such mailings only to be labelled a "threat" is simply an outrage. I hate to use literature as a political cudgel or substitute for rigorous argumentation, but I can't help but recall:


"A few agents of the thought Police moved always among them, spreading false rumours and marking down and eliminating the few individuals who were judged capable of becoming dangerous." --Orwell, 1984


Such instances of censure happen more often than many people think--and only thanks to forums like FIRE's Torch and Critical Mass do you hear anything about it.

Thanks for relating the story Erin!

Posted by: WillyShake at July 23, 2005 9:35 AM



In response to Basil at the top, and anyone who would defend the actions of this university:

I would tend to agree with the due process part of your argument. However, attempting to characterize a personal statement of moral belief as "intimidation" is ridiculous. If having someone disagree with you is intimidating, why be an academic? The cushy schedule and easy lifestyle comes with a price, not the least of which is opening yourself up to criticism and, yes, even ridicule. Even if the message was intended to be "intimidating," what does that mean? Is a statement intimidating only if it makes you fear an imminent use of physical force, akin to assault? Are professors allowed to intimidate students? If not, I know of plenty of law professors who have and continue to open themselves up to limitless liability... What about coaches intimidating student-athletes? What if I'm intimidated by someone's far superior knowledge of a subject? It's a stupid rule, and its only possible purpose can be to weed out dissent. Why not just go ahead and establish "newspeak" as the official campus language?

Posted by: Charles at July 25, 2005 3:34 PM



Charles,

Thank you for your response.

I tend to agree with you that, "attempting to characterize a personal statement of moral belief as 'intimidation' is ridiculous." What this analysis leaves out, however, is the import and force of the word "perversion." A "personal statement of moral belief," as communicated by Mr. Daniel, has the force of an insult and is doubly troublesome when vaulted at a colleague.

Intimidation occurs on every good university campus on a daily basis (and, normatively speaking, ought to), but the moment that the line between intimidation and insult is removed the basis for //honest// inquiry is destroyed.

It ought not to be suggested to Mr. Daniel and those of his ilk that college is a place unchecked "expression" of one's beliefs; rather, a place for understanding the full import and responsibilities of holding those beliefs.

Calling someone a pervert is a good way to either get punched in the nose or fired, depending on the setting; it is not a good way to open an honest discussion. My guess is that Mr. Daniel, good free-worshipper as he is, was not interested "saving" Madame Professor. Mr. Daniel threw a jab and did not like what came of it. What I love most is that the both Madame and Mr. D called PC Police, and PC is testifying on behalf of both of them! Irony this good cannot be written......which is not to say the FIRE shouldn't be //able// to read it. Dommage.

BR

Posted by: Basil at July 26, 2005 12:08 PM



I think it's funny that the university had to consult a dictionary to determine that the use of the word "perversion" does not denote a compliment.

Homosexuality is a controversial topic in this country today. A person can have very strong feelings about it on either side, and unless he's an idiot he understands that there are people who profoundly disagree with him. I think that if a professor wants to send out unsolicited email about a controversial topic, she ought to be prepared to get responses she won't like. If she's going to hold the recipients responsible for not hurting her feelings, she needs to send the emails out only to people she knows will appreciate them. Daniel thinks homosexuality is a perversion, and he said so. So much for "speaking truth to power".

Posted by: Laura at July 26, 2005 2:04 PM



The pathetic thing is, no matter how much power "progressives" have in any given situation, they will still think that *they* are the ones "speaking truth to power." If you are an untenured professor fired by a "progressive" dean, odds are that he will think he is doing a bold and courageous thing. And should "progressives" ever get the kind of power they seek, then the government official sending you to prison will think that *he* is speaking truth to power.

Posted by: David Foster at July 26, 2005 9:01 PM



It's getting more play now:
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,163705,00.html

Posted by: Tess at July 27, 2005 8:41 AM



Mr. Daniel is 63 years old! SIXTY-THREE YEARS OLD.......AND he is a //name-caller//? Referring to him as a "student" is a flat-out mischaracterization ; he is an employee taking classes. Mr. Daniel’s academic record is untouched.

This mini-drama has nothing to do with free-speech. AT ALL.

BR

Posted by: Basil at July 27, 2005 6:13 PM



Basil, what's the definition of "student"?

Posted by: Laura at July 27, 2005 6:37 PM



Laura,

To limit the definition to the case at hand and given my observations at three US universities, I would say that //everyone// on a university campus is a student; this definition includes the stragglers who are not officially enrolled as well as those who have never formally been associated with the university.

The case of "The Man Who Shot (email at) Holpp Scala" concerns neither the supression of a "student's" right to free speech nor the supression of an employee's right to free speech. Mr. Daniel received a written reprimand in his capacity as an employee, not as a student, for violating a clearly articulated harrassment policy. He was not thrown out of school, and his academic record remains untouched. In my judgment, Mr. Daniel ought to be characterized as an employee; this way the facts of the case are fairly represented.

On another note, if Mr. Daniel wants to see if his speech has truly been supressed he should conduct a tiny experiment. He could print out flyers stating his opinions on "Connie & Sally" or "Plato & Marx" or "George & Laura" and speak about them publicly......perhaps near the Department of Women's Studies. I would suggest that Mr. Daniel conduct his experiment off the clock and also do it during the school year so he cannot be characterized as an employee or a trespasser. If the university shuts down his operation, then Mr. Daniel, in my opinion, would have a true case of interest.

BR

Posted by: Basil at July 28, 2005 7:21 AM



I don't know. He didn't really write "you're a pervert" to Scala, he stated that homosexuality is a perversion. Do you suppose the employee handbook states that you can't use the word "perversion" in an email? If so, maybe they've got a case. I was surprised at his age, too, and thought it was a little strange to attempt to reeducate a man of his years into the current politically-correct worldview.

Posted by: Laura at July 28, 2005 1:10 PM