Free Speech at Stake at Warren County Community College
November 22, 2005
FIRE Program Associate Sean Clark sent me the following, which I would like to share with Torch readers:
Furthermore, the misunderstanding that mere offensive speech is enough to create a “hostile environment” has been so pervasive that in July 2003, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights was forced to issue a letter clarifying this very subject. The Department of Education unequivocally stated, “[The] OCR has recognized that the offensiveness of a particular expression, standing alone, is not a legally sufficient basis to establish a hostile environment.” Furthermore, the Department reiterated that “[i]n order to establish a hostile environment, harassment must be sufficiently serious (i.e., severe, persistent or pervasive) as to limit or deny a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program.” A single personal e-mail, even though it expressed highly offensive views, is simply not serious enough to create a “hostile environment.”
It is also interesting to note how censorship knows no political boundaries. This incident closely mirrors the case of Jihad Daniel at William Paterson University. Daniel, also responding to an e-mail advertising a public event, referred to homosexuality as a “perversion” and was later reprimanded for violating the Interim State of New Jersey Policy Prohibiting Discrimination, Harassment or Hostile Environment in the Workplace. When this story broke, conservative pundits were quick to come to Daniel’s defense—just as when Daly’s story broke, liberal groups were quick to defend his statements. What is the moral of the story? Censorship can be easily used by authorities regardless of political ideology. The only answer is for everyone, regardless of political persuasion, to denounce censorship no matter what the content of the speech.
Daly’s speech (much like Daniel’s speech) is without a doubt protected by the First Amendment, and this single incident does not even come close to meeting the standard necessary to establish a “hostile environment.” The WCCC Board of Trustees should make the correct choice tonight by affirming a commitment to freedom of speech and openly dismissing the calls to investigate and terminate John Daly.