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Jorjani v. New Jersey Institute of Technology

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 11, 2019

JASON JORJANI, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW JERSEY INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants New Jersey Institute of Technology, Joel S. Bloom, Kevin J. Belfield, Gareth J. Russell, Andrew Klobucar, and Neil Maher's ("Defendants'") collective Motion to Dismiss Counts Two through Five of the Complaint with Prejudice. ECF No. 9. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff Jason Jorjani ("Plaintiff) brings this action for First-Amendment retaliation (Count One) and defamation (Counts Two through Five) against the New Jersey Institute of Technology ("NJIT") and various NJIT professors and officers ("Defendants"). Compl. ¶¶ 4-11, ECF No. 1. Defendants move to dismiss the defamation counts. Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 9 ("Motion")

         Plaintiff is a New York resident formerly employed as a lecturer by NJIT, a public university in Newark, New Jersey. Id. ¶¶4-5. In fall 2016, Plaintiff "formed alliances within . .. the Alt Right" to promote his philosophy of "affirmation of the Indo-European Tradition" or "the idea that European cultures are intimately related to those of Greater Iran . .. and are the sources of the world's greatest scientific, artistic and spiritual developments." Id. ¶ 30. To broaden his message, Plaintiff formed the "Alt Right Corporation." Id.

         A. New York Times Op-Ed

         In summer 2017, a graduate student purportedly named Erik Hellberg interested in "how the Left persecutes and silences Right wing thought in academia" set up a meeting with Plaintiff to discuss the topic. Id. ¶ 21. In actuality, Hellberg was an agent of the ideological watchdog group "Hope Not Hate," which has the goal of "deconstructing" individuals it labels fascists or extremists. Id. ¶20. Hellberg (real name Patrik Hermansson) secretly videotaped their conversation, which touched on matters of race, immigration, and politics. Id. ¶¶ 19, 22.

         On September 19, 2017, the New York Times ("NYT") published an op-ed ("Op-Ed") containing an edited version of the recorded conversation ("Recording"). Id. ¶¶ 23-24. In the Recording, Plaintiff states, inter alia: "We will have a Europe, in 2050 where the banknotes have Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great. And Hitler will be seen like that: like Napoleon, Like Alexander; not like some weird monster, who is unique in his own category. No, he's just going to be seen as a great European leader." Jesse Singal, Undercover With the Alt-Right, NYT Op-Ed (Sept. 19, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/19. opinion/alt-right-white-supremacy-undercover.html (incorporated by reference in the Complaint).

         According to Plaintiff, the Recording was "cut and spliced from many different parts of multiple conversations, then restitched together to falsely portray Plaintiffs views as extreme or sensational." Compl. ¶ 24. "The fact that the snippet.. . had been heavily edited was an obvious fact." Id. ¶ 27. The Recording thus "falsely attributed views to Plaintiff." Id. ¶ 25.

         B. Public Rebuke by NJIT Leadership and Faculty

         After viewing the Op-Ed and Recording-and allegedly knowing it was heavily edited- Defendants Joel S. Bloom (President of NJIT) and Kevin J. Belfield (Dean of the NJIT College of Science and Liberal Arts) sent a faculty- and staff-wide email ("B&B Email") stating:

NJIT is a university that embraces diversity and sees it as a source of strength. The statements made by Mr. Jorjani in a video recently published by the [NYT] are repugnant and antithetical to our institution's core values.

Id. ¶ 35 (Count Two). Five days later, NJIT suspended Plaintiff and launched an investigation. Id. ¶¶ 43-45.

         On October 4, 2017, Defendant Gareth J. Russel (Chair of the NJIT Biology Department) published a statement ("Russel Statement") in NJIT's student newspaper, the Vector:

On current events, we strongly object to the use of pseudoscience to support racist ideology. In particular, we object to attempts to use details related to human evolution to support eugenics and white supremacy. Such opinions have been expressed by Jason Reza Jorjani, who until recently taught some of our students in courses on science, technology and society. What we have learned in the last decade and a half of human genomics, and more than a century of human paleontology, is that humans share much more than they differ; and that epigenetics, development and environmental factors can have as much effect as the slight genetic difference among individuals. We believe that Dr. Jorjani's beliefs, as revealed by his remarks, cannot help but produce a discriminatory and intimidating educational environment for our diverse student body. This makes him unfit to teach at NJIT, or indeed at any academic institution that considers its students to have equal value and potential.

Id. ¶ 47 (Count Three).

         Then on October 12, Defendant Andrew Klobucar (Chair of the NJIT Biology Department) stated in the Vector ("Klobucar Statement") that "NJIT is a university that embraces diversity and sees that diversity as a source of strength. The NJIT Faculty Senate finds racist pronouncements made by University Lecturer Jason Reza Jorjani to be morally repugnant. Hate and bigotry have no place on the NJIT campus." Id. ¶ 48 (Count Four).

         Finally, on October 25, Defendant Neil J. Maher (Chairman of the NJIT Federated Department of History) published a response in the Vector ("Maher Statement"):

We, the faculty and staff of the Federated Department of History at New Jersey Institute of Technology, are writing to denounce NJIT University Lecturer Jason Jorjani's views on race in his comments, writings, and interviews. A recent [NYT] expose, 'Undercover with the Alt-Right,' highlighted his association with the alt-right, a white supremacist movement, and his apparent enthusiasm about the redemption of Adolf Hitler as a great world leader.
Troubling as those comments are, they are consistent with his other public statements, which indicate that Dr. Jorjani is a proponent of racist ideologies. Dr. Jorjani's online article, 'Against Perennial Philosophy,' in which he identifies himself as an NJIT faculty member, expresses a view of race and intelligence harking back to eugenic beliefs and 'scientific racism' long since debunked by scientists.
As scholars of the past, we are well-prepared to provide historical context to the Aryan supremacism, eugenics, and theories of race put forth by Dr. Jorjani. In the 20th century alone, race theories and eugenic beliefs were used to support forced sterilization laws, Jim Crow legislation, restrictive immigration quotas, and the Holocaust. These ideas are not valid science but rather are reflective of prejudice and power. Just as slave owners in antebellum America utilized the now-debunked science of phrenology to justify the bondage of African-Americans, so Jorjani utilizes discredited scientific studies on intelligence and heredity in order to segregate people into racial and ethnic hierarchies on the basis of his unscientific assumptions about their fitness for participation in civilized society.
How can we trust Dr. Jorjani to educate and evaluate our students? Are we to assume that his published views on the 'innate capacities' of different racial and ethnic groups will not influence his judgment about the diverse student body at NJIT? Dr. Jorjani's published beliefs create a hostile learning environment for students of color in particular, and his presence on the instructional staff at NJIT appears to legitimize discredited race-based ideas about intelligence and citizenship that have no place in academia. It is our collective belief that Dr. Jorjani's ...

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