GRADUATE STUDENT, FREE SPEECH VINDICATED
January 23, 2013
by Bob Kellogg
A New Jersey university has apparently realized it was unconstitutional to suspend a student for posting insults on a social media page.
Joseph Aziz, a Montclair State University graduate student, admits to making snide comments on YouTube regarding the weight of a female student with whom he was having a political argument. During a disciplinary hearing, he also admitted to mentioning the woman's name while joking about the incident on Facebook. He was suspended for a semester and barred from campus.
In response to questions about the violation of free-speech rights, the school released a statement claiming that it had "acted in accordance with its Student Code of Conduct, which complies with the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, and other applicable federal and state regulations."
Robert Shibley of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says school officials "overreacted."
"Often when politics is involved, people can get pretty personal," he recognizes. "In New Jersey, certainly people make jokes about Governor Chris Christie's weight all the time in the context of other political criticisms, and that's what happened here. And Montclair State vastly overreacted by suspending Joseph Aziz for an entire semester."
He argues that Aziz did not appear to be violating any specific school policy, but that Montclair made up a policy to fit the situation.
"They need to understand that it's their practices that need to change," Shibley submits. "If they routinely order students not to talk about topics or people on social media, even if they are not talking in a place where that student can be heard, they need to understand that those practices aren't going to fly with the Constitution."
According to NJ.com, the incident began in August, when Aziz attended a campus speech with Young Americans for Liberty. A male student and his female friend heckled the speaker, which was caught on video. He regrets making the comments on YouTube and Facebook, admitting that his words were "in poor taste."
Three days after FIRE wrote the university a letter pointing out the violation of the student's free speech, Aziz's suspension was rescinded.