There has been a free speech controversy raging at Stockton University in New Jersey after doctoral student Robert Dailyda was hit by six student code of conduct charges after he used a picture of President Donald Trump as a back drop to a zoom class. Various students called the background a form of hate speech and a threat. The school has now dropped five of the six charges but the remaining charge still constitutes a denial of free speech on social media. The school maintains that Dailyda can be disciplined for saying that he would “fight to the death for our country.”Dailyda was originally charged with disruptive behavior; discrimination; harassment; hostile environment; harm; and bullying and cyberbullying. This follow a series of complaints over his use of the Trump background. Students objected that the image of Trump made them “feel offended, disrespected, and taunted.”
The remaining charge relates to a Facebook post in which Dailyda wrote saying that he would “fight to the death for our country.” The posting was deemed to be disruptive behavior, which can lead to minimum punishments including probation, community service and a fine.
The group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) objected to the University:
“(B)oasting a willingness to ‘fight to the death for our country’ is rhetorical hyperbole often deployed to underscore the speaker’s unwillingness to concede an argument or position. As a public university, Stockton must tread carefully on metaphorical political rhetoric; we hope that this is not the hill Stockton wants to die on.”
I agree with that statement.
The action taken on the Facebook posting is just the latest example of schools investigating or punishment students or faculty for speech on social media. As a blog committed to free speech issues, we can defend students and professors from both the left and the right.
This particular incident magnifies those concerns. Here is the Facebook posting flagged in the Stockton letter linked below:
“I have gotten to the point that I have to say something. I love this country. We are a diverse, yet assimilated population from all backgrounds. I believe all must have the same opportunities and I commit to make that a priority. Beyond that, I am done with the leftist agenda of BLM and the white self haters. I have seen it in action in my doctoral classes at Stockton and the general media. I’m not backing down. If we can’t get past this, ok, I’m ready to fight to the death for our county and against those that want to take it down. I believe there are also many like me.”
That is all protected speech. However, Stockton noted that there was a comment that was not written or responded to by Dailyda as the basis for possible discipline:
This post generated comments, one which was of concern in response to Mr. Dailyda saying “I’m surprised how many people are quiet…maybe not…”, this post stated “Bob Dailyda that’s what we do. (Quiet) but …we aim with precision. Boom done. No drama.” This response was not written or responded to by Mr. Dailyda but the reporting parties did mention the words sounded threatening and they were concerned that Mr. Dailyda may have similar views and thoughts of violence.
So Dailyda is being investigated for a comment left by someone else? Google recently used this as part of its rationale for cracking down on conservative sites. As we have discussed previously, many sites have eliminated their comments section because of trolls, paid or bot comments, or offensive speech. As one of the larger sites committed to free speech issues, we have resisted this trend to be open a forum for people to express themselves. We have tried to respond to complaints about offensive speech and in relatively few cases we have barred those who engage in such commentary. However, our comment section allows people to express their views and, while I often disagree with comments, I have tried not to censor them. Indeed, I routinely leave comments that insult me or say things that are demonstrably untrue about my past writings or testimony. The reason is that I feel uncomfortable with the role of censoring, particularly when I am the subject of the criticism.
This type of action would allow individuals to place offensive comments on blogs or in social media for the purpose of triggering such actions. With tens of thousands of comments on blogs like Res Ipsa, there is a lower chance of detection. However, even if detected, why should Dailyda be investigated for a comment that he neither made nor supported? My assumption is that many of Dailyda’s critics have comments that are equally reckless or threatening. However, those comments are not being addressed. The concern is that schools like Stockton work too hard to find grounds for disciplining conservative students or faculty while turning a blind eye to similar rhetoric from those opposing them. The answer is free speech. To allow people to speak freely, including denouncing such postings as part of a free and open debate.
Stockton needs to drop this final charge against Dailyda and reaffirm the principles of free speech that sustain higher education.
Here is the Dailyda letter detailing the complaint on the Facebook posting: Stockton letter