ATLANTIC CITY, N.J., Aug. 19, 2020 — Stockton University administrators on Tuesday dropped the final charge pending against a student investigated for a political post on Facebook and a Zoom background of President Donald Trump.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education first wrote to Stockton on Aug. 7 to defend the free speech rights of doctoral student Robert Dailyda. The public university dropped five of the six charges on Aug. 10 but earned a second letter from FIRE, urging administrators to rescind the final charge.
“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,” said Zach Greenberg, the author of FIRE’s letters.
In a post on his personal Facebook page, Dailyda wrote in part, “I’m ready to fight to the death for our country and against those that want to take it down.” The university expressed additional concerns about comments others left on the post. Some students found the post itself to be “offensive, threatening, and concerning,” Stockton noted in its incident report.
Dailyda also used a photo of the president as his Zoom background during a July 1 virtual class, prompting complaints from some students in a private GroupMe chat after class. Stockton’s incident report described the background and stated that the photo caused students to feel “offended, disrespected, and taunted.” Though Stockton’s report cites the controversy over the background, after FIRE’s first letter and public backlash, the university insisted that Dailyda was only being charged over his Facebook post, which Stockton considered to be a “substantial disruption of University activities or operations.” As FIRE’s second letter explained, Dailyda’s Facebook post was not a true threat, but a common form of rhetorical hyperbole protected by the First Amendment.
“I appreciate Stockton coming to realize that they overreacted to my actions,” said Dailyda. “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 faced a litany of potential punishments for his expression, including suspension, probation, community service, a $50 fine, and a mandatory “decision making workshop.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.