A New Jersey college this week dropped the final disciplinary charge it had been pursuing against one of its doctoral students after he used a photo of President Trump as his Zoom background for a class and wrote a political Facebook post following backlash he received from fellow students over the photo.
Stockton University previously charged doctoral student Robert Dailyda with disruptive behavior; discrimination; harassment; hostile environment; harm; and bullying and cyberbullying, over the Facebook post, in which Dailyda said that he would “fight to the death for our country.” The school, after pushback from the students’ rights organization Freedom for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), dropped all the charges except for disruptive behavior last week, before dropping that charge as well Tuesday.
“Stockton finally did the right thing — but it shouldn’t take action from FIRE and negative publicity to get a public institution to uphold students’ First Amendment rights,” Zach Greenberg, a program officer with FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said in a statement.
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In a statement posted by FIRE, Dailyda added: “I appreciate Stockton coming to realize that they overreacted to my actions… However, I am appalled that it required me to take the steps to enlist FIRE to assist me in overcoming these unjust charges. I remain concerned that there are others who reached out to me in this process who don’t have the wherewithal to push back in their own cases. I am hopeful that positive change will result from this case.”
Dailyda’s decision to use the Trump background provoked “heated” discussions with fellow students in a group message before Dailyda left that chat. He later posted a message on Facebook on the “leftist agenda of BLM and the white self haters” that he said he has “seen in action” at Stockton.
“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,” Dailyda said. “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.”
Dailyda added in a comment: “I’m surprised how many people are quiet… maybe not…” A comment to that post, from a different person, said: “Bob Dailyda that’s what we do. (Quiet) but …we aim with persision (sic). Boom done. No drama.”
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Fellow students reported Dailyda to the school for both the Trump background, which Stockton University documents posted by FIRE say made them “feel offended, disrespected, and taunted,” and his Facebook post which the same documents said made some students feel “concerned that Mr. Dailyda may have similar views and thoughts of violence.”
That caused some initial confusion over what actions Dailyda was being charged for, but another in letter from Stockton posted by FIRE the school made clear the charges were just over the Facebook post.
To pursue Dailyda on a “disruptive behavior” charge over the post, FIRE countered, would still violate the First Amendment.
“[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,” FIRE said in a letter. “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.”
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FIRE also added that the school could not legally punish Dailyda for the other person’s comment on his post, because that was not even Dailyda’s speech.
Stockton University confirmed the investigation to Fox News and the validity of the documents that FIRE published, but said it could not comment further, citing privacy laws.
One of the letters from Stockton to Dailyda posted by FIRE noted that it planned to schedule a mediation session with Dailyda now that the charges have been dropped. Dailyda, under the school’s disciplinary code, could have faced penalties including suspension or a fine had the school eventually found him responsible for the violations it previously alleged.