Jason Jorjani, a former university lecturer at NJIT, is demanding $25 million in damages from NJIT
A federal district court judge is expected to rule soon on a libel suit filed by a former NJIT lecturer whose controversial views on race and eugenics were criticized by NJIT administrators and professors last year.
The lawsuit was filed in federal district court last summer by Jason Jorjani, a lecturer in the Science, Technology and Society program. Jorjani began teaching in the Science Technology and Society program in the fall of 2016. He lost his job last spring, when his contract was not renewed after he became the subject of controversy because of his political views stemming from his association with the AltRight Corporation, an organization he had co-founded with white supremacist Richard Spencer.
In his suit, Jorjani claims that NJIT’s actions were the “antithesis of academic freedom,’’ which, “stifled [his] free search for truth; retaliated against [him] for the exercise of free speech’’ and subjected him to “institutional censorship and discipline for speaking and writing as a citizen,’’ according to the lawsuit. Specifically, Jorjani accuses NJIT President Joel Bloom, Dean Kevin Belfield, Biology Chairman Gareth Russell, NJIT Faculty Senate President Andrew Klobucar and History Chairman Neil Maher of defaming him when they published statements via email and in The Vector of expressing their rejection of Jorjani’s beliefs. He is seeking $25 million in damages.
The suit has sparked a spirited First Amendment defense by the university, which is arguing that just as Jorjani had the right to his opinions, so did Bloom, Belfield, Russell, Klobucar and Maher.
“In the end, Dr. Jorjani seems to enjoy being a small-time, alt-right agent provocateurwho spouts racial drivel; that avocation, however, does not render him immune from either the truth (that his statements are racist based on the dictionary definition of the term) or from the opinions of others,’’ university court papers state.
What comes next
The suit was filed last summer and is before U.S. Federal District Court Judge William J. Martini. He is expected to issue an opinion in the coming week or so, according to Martini’s Courtroom Deputy Gail Hansen.
What is libel? What is academic freedom?
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech, is at the heart of this case. This constitutional right protects the interests of Americans to exercise their ideas and opinions, and overall exemplifies the process of democracy. According to thelawdictionary.org, “Without free speech protections, citizens would have a hard time challenging their government or speaking freely about the issues that matter to them. A democratic system can only exist when citizens are free to argue, debate, and voice their opinions without fear of punishment or retribution.”
However, the First Amendment does not mean anything goes. Free speech has its limits, one of them being defamation, and in his suit, Jorjani is claiming that the responses that came from the university officials were defamatory, and therefore, not protected by the First Amendment.
Defamation is defined as “a false communication that harms individuals’ reputations, causes the general public to hate or disrespect them, or damages their business or employment,” according to the Guide to Free Speech on Campus by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that specializes in First Amendment law. To win a libel suit, one must show the statement “must be an assertion of fact (rather than mere opinion) and capable of being proven false,’’ according to the FIRE guide.
In the Jorjani case, the university is arguing that all of the statements at issue are statements of opinion, and furthermore, relevant, given that Jorjani’s views were matters of public concern.
Jorjani, meanwhile is also arguing that his actions were protected by the First Amendment — as well as academic freedom, a concept that, according to the FIRE guide, has proven to be legally fuzzy.
According to the Fire Guide: “Academic freedom—which one may broadly conceive of as a general recognition that the academy must be free to research, teach, and debate ideas without censorship or outside interference—has proven to be an amorphous concept in practice, but serves nonetheless as a guiding and necessary principle for higher education.’’ Specifically, there is no legal consensus about what academic freedom means: “. . . because of the lack of guidance from the Supreme Court, there remains an ongoing debate over who actually possesses the right to academic freedom—students, professors and/or the university itself,’’ the FIRE guide states.
How did Jorjani’s case unfold?
The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a controversy that began last fall when Jorjani’s views were highlighted in a video that accompanied a New York Times opinion piece by Jesse Singal that highlighted the work of Patrik Hermansson, a Swedish graduate student who had done undercover research on the Alt Right.
Jorjani was sought out by Hermansson because of his role as “the architect’’ of the AltRight Corp, which Jorjani co-founded with white supremacist Richard Spencer in January 2017, just over two months after the November 2016 presidential election. (Jorjani ended up resigning from the Alt Right Corp. after the Charlottesville “Unite the Right’’ rally in August 2017.)
Hermansson’s video, which ran as a supplement to Singal’s op-ed, profiled Jorjani and his efforts to build an Alt Right media empire. In the video, which was filmed in a New York pub, Jorjani tells Hermannson about his desires to transform the AltRight movement into a “revolutionary force’’: “This movement has mass appeal, because it is the counterculture now. It is the underdog. We should go from being underdogs to becoming a revolutionary state, Jorjani is seen saying.”
Jorjani immediately took issue with the video, arguing that it had been heavily edited to misrepresent his views, especially in the portion of the tape where he was commenting on Hitler. What he meant, he said, was that if the immigration issue was not dealt with, there will be war and concentration camps, and Hitler will be seen as a great leader—but not that he himself endorsed Hitler’s views.
Jorjani claims that all of his actions were protected political activities under the First Amendment and that he became involved with the Alt Right Corporation in order to broaden its message to reflect his views that “European culture[s] are intimately related to those of Greater Iran and the Persianate World, Hindu India and the Buddhist East and are the sources of the world’s greatest scientific, artist and spiritual developments,’’ according to the suit.
The New York Times piece sparked an email from Bloom, who denounced Jorjani’s views in an email as being “repugnant to our institution’s core values.’’ It also led to a closer examination of Jorjani’s published writings, specifically his views on race and eugenics, which he outlined in a blog post called “Against Perennial Philosophy’’ where he argued: “Racial difference is real, and it matters. That Africans have an average IQ of around 75 whereas whites have an average IQ of around 100, and Africans who have mixed with whites (for example in North America or South Africa) have an average IQ of 85 has to do not with education or social conditioning but with different genetic inheritances from extinct Hominid species.’’
This prompted Maher to issue a statement on behalf of the Federated Department of History, that argued that Jorjani “expresses a view of race and intelligence harking back to eugenic beliefs and “scientific racism long since debunked by scientists.’’ Other critical statements were issued by the Faculty Senate and the NJIT biology department.
Why was Jorjani suspended?
A key point of contention in Jorjani’s suit is the decision by the university to put Jorjani on administrative leave sevendays after the New York Timesarticle came out in September and then, a few months later, in February 2018, not to renew his contract. Lecturers do not have tenure, and their contracts are for one year at a time.
The contents of the Sept. 25 letter notifying Jorjani that he was being put on administrative leave was included in the suit. The letter states that the New York Timesarticle had caused “significant disruption at the university, and based on our information, we believe that the disruption will continue to expand. Further, the article and subsequent information provided by you reveals your association with organizations that were not disclosed on your outside activity forms, despite being directed by your chair to fully update your disclosure form last spring.’’
Jorjani argues the non-renewal of his contract “was not related to any alleged ethical lapses, which were mere pretexts for his severance from NJIT,’’ his suit reads. “Rather, Defendant’s non-renewal and severance of Plaintiff were due to his engagement in speech which content was disapproved by Defendants and his association with a political movement of which Defendants disapproved.’’