The Irony of “Free Speech” at Montclair State

Peter Bonilla of FIRE at Montclair State University

The story begins in early March of this year, when Montclair State University’s (NJ) YAL chapter, of which I am president, began advertising for our Free Speech speaker. The event was meant to be in reaction to the story of MSU graduate student and YAL member Joe Aziz, which made national news after Foundation for Individual Rights in Education stepped in.

Long story short, Aziz was slapped with an unconstitutional gag order by MSU’s administration after writing a rude joke in a YouTube comment in response to the video posted by the girlfriend of the young man who heckled YAL’s guest speaker Steve Lonegan, back in September 2012. The gag order stated that he was not to speak to the young woman nor to speak about her. Aziz broke the terms of this gag order by joking about the situation in a private Facebook group, where one of the other members printed out his posts and showed them to the school administration. Aziz was suspended for six months, and would have stayed that way if FIRE had not raised a media storm in national and international publications. Under so much press scrutiny, MSU backed off and rescinded the suspension, allowing Aziz to re-enlist in all his classes and clearing his record.

To raise awareness of free speech on college campuses, YAL hosted FIRE’s Associate Director Peter Bonilla as a guest speaker, with Aziz making the opening remarks. This event took place on Thursday, March 7, the week before spring break.

On Thursday, March 21, we had planned to host as a speaker Frank Fiamingo, the President of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society—a grassroots organization committed to fighting for the rights of responsible gun owners across the state which is notorious for its gun control laws. Because the previous week had been spring break, our YAL chapter was in a panic, since we had only four days to promote the event.

We resorted to interesting and slightly controversial tactics in order to attract attention. Here, I am tabling in a Colonial costume with the flyer which almost got us into trouble:

YAL President Tabling Before Gun Rights Event

On Monday, March 18, our Public Relations officer came to the scheduling office, which is under the Dean of Students office, to get this flyer stamped for approval as per school policy. The lady responsible for stamping the flyer felt uncomfortable with its straightforward message and referred us to the Dean of Students herself, who promptly rejected our flyer due to its “inflammatory” nature. She said that she would approve a flyer that said something along the lines of “Are guns good?” because that would foster discussion instead of stating a view so explicitly. She alleged that she would likewise reject a flyer with a message like “Drugs are bad” or “Guns are bad”. 

The only problem is that is not the Dean of Students’ place to dictate what our events are about, or what our flyer says. Our speech is totally protected; given that the Student Government Association approved the event, we have every right to promote it in a way we see fit—especially since the flyer is actually not offensive.

Later in the day on Monday, our Vice President went to the Center for Student Involvement, which is another office under the Dean of Students, and got the flyer stamped by another administrator with no incident. On Tuesday, March 19, we posted the flyers strictly in approved spaces and precisely followed the overly-intricate posting policy of the university.

But while we were tabling on Tuesday, the Dean of Students herself passed by me handing out smaller quarter-page versions of our flyer and looked irritated, saying that she does not approve of the flyer and giving a visual description of our Public Relations officer, the young man who saw her about getting the flyer stamped the previous day. He happened to be tabling with me, and she approached him, saying “I thought we talked about this.” She seemed upset that someone in an office underneath her approved the flyer without her agreement, and said that the flyer should not have been stamped. Furthermore, she walked off to talk to the staff of the Center for Student Involvement, and when she returned she told us that even though she could not do anything about the flyers since we technically did not violate any policy, these flyers should not have been stamped in the first place–and that in the future, our flyers should encourage discussion.

Of course, this is unreasonable, since YAL is the only active political group on campus, and our very purpose is to spread our message. There is the Political Science Club, which can serve as a space for friendly debate; but we have definite political positions. We contacted Peter Bonilla of FIRE once again, and he wrote a letter to the administration asking them to make it clear to us that such a flyer is protected by the First Amendment and that our flyers will not be rejected in the future. After all, the “Guns are good” flyer did not even violate the arbitrary school rules of what constitutes harassment or bias. According to any rules, there was nothing wrong with the flyer; it was only one overzealous administrator who decided that some people may be offended by such a message.

We have yet to hear back from the administration regarding our future flyers and the nature of our future events, as per Mr. Bonilla’s letter. Our Second Amendment event went off without a hitch; even though we had only a few days to advertise the event, we had a sizeable audience, and everyone seemed to greatly enjoy what Mr. Fiamingo had to say about rights and safety.

President of NJ2AS at Montclair State

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