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UNH Political Science Department Denies Bias in Leavitt Snub

University of New Hampshire College Democrats seem to be getting help with turnout for their events from the school’s political science department, though its chair denies any bias. 

When the UNH Political Science Department sent out a notice informing students of an upcoming Get Out the Vote rally featuring Democrats Sen. Maggie Hassan and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, College Republican President Carson Hansford took exception.

“I was shocked when I saw the notice,” Hansford said.

The department regularly sends students notices about events on campus featuring political figures. The notices typically state they are not endorsements of any political side, and the department does not sponsor the events in any way. But Hansford said institutional bias seems to be at work.

Last spring, the College Republicans hosted GOP congressional candidate Karoline Leavitt as part of her “Wake up Gen Z College Tour.” Hansford sent an email about the event to the address for the department listed in the school’s directory. He never heard back. The department never sent a notice to students about the Leavitt appearance he said.

“I had not received an email in reply, so I had forgotten about it and had assumed that the department did not want to advertise anything that was political,” Hansford said. “Yesterday … the political science department sent an email advertising Sen. Hassan and Sen. Warren coming to campus on Friday for a GOTV (get out the vote) event, even sending out the Democrat’s link to sign up for it.”

Hansford said there is a general liberal bias on campus among students, and that he and his fellow College Republicans deal with regular snarky comments when they hold public events.

“People say to us we’re the worst thing ever, things along those lines,” Hansford said.

Jeannie Sowers

Jeannie Sowers, the department chair, told NH Journal the issue of the notices from her department is not a story, and that Hansford was wrong to speak to the media about his concerns.

“I do not appreciate students reaching out to the media and trying to create a controversy where none exists,” Sowers said.

When asked about the Leavitt event, Sowers feigned ignorance.

“I do not know who that is,” Sowers said of the GOP rising star who is facing off against Rep. Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, in next week’s closely watched election with national implications.

Sowers said the department has a rule not to send out notices about people who are merely candidates and instead focuses on sitting elected officials regardless of party.

“Sitting elected officials are more likely to get notice,” Sowers said.

Sowers faulted Hansford for not reaching out to the department with his concerns and cast doubt on whether he ever sent the department a notice about his event. She also suggested Hansford may have requested some type of sponsorship from the department for the event, which would have been against policy.

Hansford, a political science undergrad, said he did not ask for any kind of endorsement or sponsorship. As for the distinction about sitting elected officials getting priority over candidates, Hansford said the department sent out notices about Democratic presidential candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Bernie Sanders during the presidential primary season.

UNH is ranked 16th in the nation for free speech on campus by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), but that was down from 3rd just a year earlier.  Katelyn Regan, head of the UNH Students for Life chapter, recently told NH Journal her pro-life organization has been subject to threats and intimidation on campus, mostly from pro-abortion students.

“We have had the police called on us a bunch of times,” Regan said.

Leavitt has run into stumbling blocks on New Hampshire campuses throughout her campaign. Last summer, Southern New Hampshire University imposed restrictions on the audience for an appearance by Leavitt hosted by the campus College Republicans. The administration acknowledged it singled out Leavitt for being “controversial.”

“Our policies are compliant with both state and federal laws and allow for the free flow of information and ideas while ensuring campus safety,” said SNHU spokesperson Siobhan Lopez.

Shoddy Reporting and ‘Woke’ Bias: Spofford Sues NHPR

Former Granite Recovery Centers CEO Eric Spofford is suing New Hampshire Public Radio reporter Lauren Chooljian, alleging she has engaged in a biased campaign targeting the politically-connected businessman.

According to his lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Rockingham Superior Court, “Chooljian viewed Eric as her opportunity to ascend the journalism ranks. To Chooljian, a #MeToo-styled report about a white male, Republican donor, and bold and successful businessman, who made money in the substance use disorder treatment business, had all the markings of a career-defining piece.”

Spofford is being represented by high-powered attorney Howard Cooper with the Boston firm Todd & Weld. Jayme Simoes, a communications consultant with NHPR, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the public radio station had not yet been served.

“NHPR has not been served with a lawsuit and cannot comment on a suit they haven’t seen,” Simoes said.

Chooljian made waves when she reported in March that Spofford sexually harassed multiple women. The accusations included at least one sexual assault Spofford committed on a former Granite State Recovery Centers employee.

Spofford is a big, and potentially attractive, target for the left-leaning media outlet. Politically connected to Gov. Chris Sununu, Spofford’s drug abuse recovery centers became the largest recovery facilities in New Hampshire. According to Chooljian’s reporting, Spofford even counseled Sununu on the response to New Hampshire’s opined epidemic.

“Sununu championed Spofford, saying he is ‘one of the first guys I’ll pick up the phone to’ for advice about responding to the opioid crisis,” Chooljian wrote.

Spofford sold Granite Recovery Centers to BayMark Health Services, a Texas-based treatment company, last year. The sale price was not disclosed.

Spofford’s lawsuit claims that one of the sources Chooljian relied on, former GSC employee Piers Kaniuka, retracted his statements that linked Spofford to the abuse. That retraction has gone unreported by NHPR, according to the lawsuit.

“Specifically, I am concerned with your use of my statement comparing Mr. Spofford to Harvey Weinstein and my statement that Mr. Spofford should be prosecuted. At the time I made those statements to Ms. Chooljian, I naively assumed that I would have been provided an opportunity to vet any statements I made, and to provide permission for them to be used, prior to their publication as part of the article,” Kaniuka wrote to NHPR’s board in May. “I regret making those statements. I did not have any direct personal knowledge concerning any sexual abuse, misconduct, or other inappropriate behavior by Mr. Spofford with employees, clients, or former clients.”

According to the lawsuit, “Kaniuka was one of only four on-the-record sources identified in Chooljian’s reporting. Of those four, Kaniuka was the only one who had known Eric for nearly two decades. Two of the others had been acquainted with Eric as employees of GRC for less than three months each, and one had never even met Eric.”

Since Kaniuka wrote that letter to NHPR, the retraction has been suppressed by the radio station, according to the lawsuit.

“NHPR instead has decided for its readers and listeners that Kaniuka’s statement is irrelevant to Chooljian’s reporting about Eric. Yet NHPR knows the opposite is true,” the lawsuit states.

The motivation behind the story is money and ambition, according to the lawsuit. NHPR has used its Spofford coverage to seek donations and corporate sponsorships while Chooljian used it to get a job with a national media outlet.

“On information and belief, taking down Eric became a means to Chooljian’s end goal: to join a national news organization,” the lawsuit states. “On information and belief, NHPR was depending on Chooljian’s piece to aid its fundraising efforts this year. If Chooljian could deliver reporting that took down someone NHPR viewed as a prominent figure in the state, that would garner national attention and greater visibility to donors nationwide.”

Spofford’s lawsuit even accuses Chooljian and NHPR of trying to link him to a case of vandalism at her home.

“A reporter’s current and former homes in Melrose, Mass., and Hampstead, N.H., were vandalized early in the morning of Saturday, May 21, police said. In Melrose, a person spray-painted the words “Just the beginning!” in red on the home, threw a brick through a window and was seen running away,” the NHPR report states.

The report quotes Melrose Police Chief Michael Lyle who connected the vandalism to Spofford.

“I would certainly think [Spofford] may be interviewed by the authorities. He may have some information that might support a case. It would be too early to say he would be a person of interest,” Lyle said. “After the article came out, all this trouble started for the reporter or the news organization. At some point [investigators] may have a conversation with him.”

Spofford’s lawsuit takes issue with his even being mentioned in the story about the vandalism, saying it was part of an effort to divert the public’s attention away from the Kaniuka retraction.

“The NHPR defendants knowingly weaponized a conspiratorial connection between Eric and the alleged vandalism as a means for the NHPR defendants to deflect from their suppression of the Kaniuka retraction. There was not a scintilla of evidence connecting Eric to the alleged vandalism—the alleged vandal was caught on camera and was very obviously not Eric,” the lawsuit states.

Dartmouth Drops in Campus Free Speech Rankings — Again

Dartmouth College’s standing as a campus that supports diversity of opinion and expression fell again this year, down 20 places in the newest ranking of campus free speech from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).

Earlier this month, FIRE released its findings from “the largest survey on student free expression ever conducted.”

“That so many students are self-silencing and silencing each other is an indictment of campus culture,” said FIRE Senior Research Fellow Sean Stevens. “How can students develop their distinct voices and ideas in college if they’re too afraid to engage with each other?”

Or, as the report concluded, “Sayonara, debate and disagreement; hello, campus kumbaya.”

New Hampshire’s Ivy League school pulled a Gentleman’s C in last year’s ranking, coming in at number 63 in the nation. But this year, Dartmouth dropped even lower, to number 83 — below the state universities of Idaho, Indiana, and Alabama.

And while the University of New Hampshire fares far better at number 16, which was a drop from number three last year.

“The University of New Hampshire remains steadfast in its commitment to the principles of free speech and academic freedom and are pleased to know FIRE recognizes our work to protect these freedoms while encouraging openness and civility,” said Erika Mantz, executive director for UNH Media Relations.

FIRE reports college students and faculty at schools across the country face extreme challenges to the free expression of ideas.

“Alarming proportions of students self-censor, report worry or discomfort about expressing their ideas in a variety of contexts, find controversial ideas hard to discuss, show intolerance for controversial speakers, find their administrations unclear or worse regarding support for free speech, and even report that disruption of events or violence are, to some degree, acceptable tactics for shutting down the speech of others,” the report states.

Dartmouth’s administration did not respond to a request for comment, but students who anonymously reported to FIRE say the school campus is ruled by “mob mentality” and students live in ideological echo chambers. According to FIRE, for every one conservative student, there are roughly 4.3 liberal students.

“Mob mentality situations occur all the time in a small campus like Dartmouth. From minimal things to huge issues, there is a main way of thinking that if you do not conform to, you are alienated,” one student said.

Another student said they feel uncomfortable confronting the racism they experience at the school.

“I am a person of color who often has to hear White people make comments that come off as tone deaf or performative and I do not feel comfortable saying something about it,” the student said.

One student told FIRE they are unable to express their support for the nation of Israel due to fears over anti-semitism.

“Sometimes feel stigma against saying that I support Israel. People paint it as being against human rights and I’ve personally seen antisemitism attached to the subject occur on college campuses,” the student said.

According to FIRE’s report, only 27 percent of Dartmouth students say shouting down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus is never acceptable. At UNH, that number is 44 percent. Both represent a minority of students.

FIRE’s Vice President of Research, Adam Goldstein, said schools need to set the example early in the school year that free speech is the norm on campus.

“FIRE’s top-ranked school, the University of Chicago, starts by sending letters to incoming students explaining the value of free expression,” Goldstein said. “Reinforcing those messages through orientation programs and official policy statements makes sure the message lands. Reforming any anti-speech policies, like restrictive protest or internet use policies, will show students that the administration is walking the walk. And FIRE is ready to help with all of that.”

FIRE got involved at Dartmouth last year after allied threats of protestors shut down a planned speech by conservative speaker Andy Ngo at Dartmouth College.

Dartmouth canceled the Jan. 20 event hosted by the campus chapters of the College Republicans, Turning Point USA, and Network of Enlightened Women, forcing it online because of unspecified “concerning information” from the Hanover police.

However, documents obtained by both NH Journal and FIRE indicate police never thought that the planned protest presented a credible threat.

Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis told FIRE in a letter that his department “did not make a recommendation to Dartmouth College regarding the January 20th event.”

Dartmouth responded to the controversy by charging the Dartmouth College Republicans Club a $3,600 security bill.

Goldstein said students should know they have options to protect their speech, and that FIRE will help.

“Students who feel their rights aren’t being respected can call FIRE for help–that’s the easy answer here and it’s never the wrong answer because even if we can’t help in a specific situation, we might have some ideas about who can. But generally speaking, the first step is going to be to go to the administrator, board, or student group that’s not respecting those rights and ask them to reconsider,” he said. “Most speech restraints are created by well-intentioned people focused on something other than freedom of speech and bringing speech to their attention can go a long way.”

Judge Won’t End Exeter Teen’s Trans Speech Case; Cites ‘Constitutional Issues’

Rockingham Superior Court Judge David Ruoff rejected requests for summary judgment from both the Exeter High School student claiming he was discriminated against for saying there are only two genders and the school’s attorney, citing “constitutional issues.”

Attorneys for both SAU 16 and the Exeter High School student known as M.P. asked Ruoff for summary judgment. That would essentially have the judge give one side a win and close the case.

Ruoff, however, said there is too much in the case that is in dispute for him to make such a ruling, including constitutional questions that need to be addressed.

“Each version of the relevant events implicates different constitutional issues and consideration,” Ruoff wrote in the July 29 ruling. “Thus, due to the presence of a genuine issue of material fact, the court finds summary judgment inappropriate.”

In his lawsuit, M.P. claims he was disciplined for expressing his views, informed by his Catholic faith, that there are only two genders. M.P. claims he expressed those views outside of the school campus—on a school bus and later through a text app—and that he was suspended from the football team after the conversation was reported to school officials.

Exeter High School and SAU 16 officials say M.P. was disciplined for being a bully and not for expressing his religious views.

The district’s attorney, Michel Eaton claimed M.P. is not the victim of religious discrimination but instead was benched for a game by his coach for violating the team’s code of conduct. The benching had nothing to do with the school’s transgender discrimination policies, according to Eaton.

“M.P.’s coach did not decide to bench M.P. based upon M.P.’s opinion that there are only two genders, nor would he. Rather, M.P. was benched for using crude, inappropriate, and disrespectful language while communicating with Student Doe. This behavior was consistent with M.P.’s documented history of bullying and inappropriate behavior, including such behavior on the school bus and such behavior targeted at Student Doe specifically,” Eaton wrote in the district’s response to the lawsuit.

Court records indicate M.P. and Student Doe’s conversation included M.P. calling Student Doe a “bozo,” and M.P. telling Student Doe to “STFU” because “there’s only 2 genders.” Student Doe took those texts to Coach William Ball, according to the court record.

Ball then took M.P. to Vice Principal Marcy Dovholuk, who told him he would be benched for a week because of the “conversation about pronouns.”

Ball later reduced the suspension to one game, based on M.P.’s alleged violation of the athletic code of conduct.

M.P. ‘s lawyers say the benching was in retaliation for his conservative view of gender.

Exeter High School and SAU 16 have been on the frontlines of the culture wars in New Hampshire. Andres Mejia, the director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice for the Exeter Region Cooperative School District, is part of the federal lawsuit against the state over the so-called “banned concepts” law, claiming the state is trying to stop teaching about racial and gender issues.

The anti-discrimination law prohibits students from being taught that “a person, because of their membership in one or more identified group(s), is inherently either: (1) racist, sexist, or oppressive, consciously or unconsciously or (2) superior or inferior to people of another identified group.”

Mejia is also a member of the controversial Black Lives Matter organization and denied it creates a conflict when dealing with students based on race or ideology.

Last year, Exeter High School also got in trouble after staff at the prom started putting Sharpie marks on the hands of students who had not been vaccinated against COVID-19. Numerous parents complained, prompting a joint review by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Education, which called the prom fiasco a “disturbing failure.”

The review found the staff at the prom had already been told by administrators to not do anything of the kind before they started marking students.

“The fact that supervising SAU 16 staff did not stop the contact tracing procedure, despite having acknowledged receiving the email from the superintendent informing all staff that they were not to ask students about their vaccine status, is a very disturbing failure to protect students,” the statement reads.

The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) and DOE joint investigation came after months of complaints from parents ranging from the prom incident to the way a sexual assault was reported. The review looked at six issues in the school district. While lapses in some cases were noted, there did not appear to be any criminal or civil charges forthcoming, according to the report.

“The AGO does not find any violation of New Hampshire law regarding discrimination due to this issue. However, both the AGO and DOE are deeply concerned regarding the public marking of students’ hands and the lack of protection for students’ vaccination information,” the joint statement read.

SNHU Restricts Audience for Leavitt Appearance, Insists on Right to Reject ‘Controversial’ Speakers

Republican congressional candidate Karoline Leavitt had a limited audience when she spoke at Southern New Hampshire University after school administrators ordered the event to be limited to students only.

Ky Urban, president of the SNHU College Republican Club, said he first learned about the policy to limit or exclude what the school deems “controversial” speakers when he asked about hosting an event featuring the First Congressional District GOP candidate.

“We were just hoping to line up our speakers for the next academic year. We would like to bring candidates, politicians, and people who lecture on topics that are of interest to conservatives,” Urban said. “We were first made aware of this ‘controversial speakers’ policy when we were trying to host Karoline Leavitt who is running for U.S. Congress in CD-1. The administration eventually let us host an event with her. But they limited it to SNHU students only, which reduced the number of people who could attend,” Urban said.

Urban was told that the university must substantively review and approve all proposed speakers to ensure they “are not so controversial that they would draw unwanted demonstrators” to campus. The university explained it “invite[s] discussion as long as it is friendly.”

Rather than allowing the general public to attend, as is commonly the practice for speakers of public interest, the campus GOP was ordered to limit the invitation to students only. As a result, the administration has the power to restrict who is allowed to speak on campus and who is allowed to hear them.

Leavitt blamed the liberal culture in higher education that seeks to minimize or silence conservative voices.

“All across America, college campuses are silencing conservatives for fear of backlash from their overwhelming liberal student body. To prevent outcry from their students, college administrations have devised various ways to ensure their monolithic brainwashing programs operate free of dissension. The only way we will disrupt their indoctrination of our youth is by challenging the status quo, which I will continue to do when given the opportunity,” Leavitt said.

The policy of reviewing invited speakers caught the attention of free-speech organization, FIRE — the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression — which has criticized the school and demanded it change its practices.

“When university officials determine which views are worth sharing, as SNHU administrators claim the authority to do here, students and faculty will invite fewer speakers to campus. In turn, fewer controversial and non-controversial speakers will come, and fewer viewpoints will be shared, all to the detriment of the campus community,” said FIRE’s Sabrina Conza.

SNHU’s Siobhan Lopez, assistant director of media relations, said the school is committed to the free exchange of ideas, so long as there is order on campus.

“Southern New Hampshire University seeks to promote and facilitate the exchange of innovative and diverse ideas, and we welcome speakers with a broad range of viewpoints and backgrounds to foster a diverse and rich educational experience for members of the university community. Our policies are compliant with both state and federal laws and allow for the free flow of information and ideas while ensuring campus safety,” Lopez said.

Urban said the way the policy is enforced targets conservatives. He was told by one administrator that former President Donald Trump would not be allowed to speak on campus for being too controversial.

“We are not aware of any specific criteria regarding which speakers are considered acceptable under SNHU’s controversial speakers policy. However, vague language typically allows administrators to enact policies that are not above board and makes excuses after the fact,” Urban said.

Events with invited speakers are vital to college clubs, which use them to recruit new members. Urban said having the audience limited when a speaker is deemed too controversial is a setback for clubs like his.

“This policy has severely harmed our club because we are not able to bring speakers that will draw a large crowd. Normally, exciting speaking events are a highlight for conservative college clubs and help to increase membership,” Urban said.

The events also bring diverse ideas to the campus, which tends to ideologically skew left, according to Urban.

“They also help to bring diverse views to campus, since liberal arts colleges tend to skew to the left with regard to the speakers they bring and what is taught in the classroom. We ask that SNHU uphold their commitment to freedom of expression on campus,” Urban said.

CONZA: SNHU Is Failing Its Free Speech Pledge

Imagine if the government could silence you before you have a chance to speak because officials think someone might be offended or resort to disruption or violence. It might sound insane that others’ potential feelings or actions mean you have to shut up, but that’s the reality for students at a university here in the Granite State.

Southern New Hampshire University mandates that student groups run all invited speakers by university administrators to weed out those who may cause controversy. The administration gives itself sole discretion to turn down speakers who may “draw unwanted demonstrations” to campus. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, where I work, is demanding that SNHU rescind this requirement because it prevents members of the campus community from freely expressing themselves and from engaging with speakers that the university bans.

To be clear, SNHU is a private school not required to promise students free expression. But when colleges do make those promises by way of university policy—as SNHU does—they must live up to them. When students invite speakers to campus, their association with the speaker constitutes expression. When universities create viewpoint and content-based barriers for students to invite speakers to campus, they restrict students’ rights to free expression, breaking promises made to students who choose to enroll.

SNHU cannot speak out of both sides of its mouth, guaranteeing respect for students’ expressive rights while obstructing those same rights when speech is contentious. However, that’s exactly what administrators did. Their response to FIRE claims the university “seeks to promote and facilitate the exchange of innovative and diverse ideas,” but states the university is “confident” that its policies don’t violate the law or infringe the free flow of ideas. As we told SNHU in response, “expression is not free when authorities must approve of the speakers and viewpoints expressed.”

When institutions shut down free speech, they encourage detractors to disrupt campus in the future, because they know it has worked in the past. This concept is known as the “heckler’s veto” — a form of mob censorship in which officials shut down expression due to actual disruption or the threat of disruption. 

Of course, SNHU must balance free speech with safety. Shouldn’t a university punish those who react to speech with violence and misconduct rather than those who seek to speak peacefully? That is precisely the problem with SNHU’s required review of invited speakers. It cannot unilaterally block broad swaths of political speech under the guise that allowing the speech would sacrifice campus safety. Expression and the free flow of ideas must be encouraged on campus—not restricted.

FIRE rated four New Hampshire universities based on the extent to which their policies restrict students’ right to free expression: Keene State College, Plymouth State College, University of New Hampshire, and Dartmouth College. The rated public schools all earn FIRE’s highest “green light” for free speech. However, Dartmouth—which has faced FIRE’s ire recently for shutting down a student group’s event—earned a “yellow light” rating, meaning it has at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application. Good policies are the first step to ensuring students may speak freely on campus—a goal all universities should strive to achieve.

SNHU must bring its policies in line with its strong commitment to students’ expressive rights. It should do that not only when legally required to do so, but also because it’s morally obligated to promote a culture of free expression on campus. That’s the beauty of free speech: Speakers whose views may not be commonplace can share their opinions with others and learn from each other without fear of being silenced.

FIRE stands ready to help SNHU, and all other speech-restrictive institutions, bring its policies in line with its commitment to free expression. Officials must stop acting as if free speech hinders a community. Instead, they must acknowledge that it strengthens a community by allowing its members to freely exchange ideas, both controversial and popular, and by allowing those from different backgrounds to gather to learn from one another’s viewpoints. 

To make this vision a reality, SNHU must end its prior review of invited speakers and the censorship that comes with it.

FLOWERS: Running Afoul of Arbitrary Facebook Formulas

I’m used to being suspended by social media. I have a fairly colorful way of expressing myself, which is attributable to my Irish-Italian pit bull lineage. But I’m also a lawyer, which means I have some passing understanding of how to carefully parse words and phrases so that I can insult you without actually insulting you, I can attack without visibly drawing blood, I can tread that filament of space between cheeky and defamatory.

But these days, we don’t deal in nuance. In fact, social media has become so obsessed with politically correct expression and sanitized thought that if there is even the suspicion of someone saying something that goes against conventional wisdom or accepted societal rules, they are virtually arrested, virtually charged, virtually tried and virtually convicted before you can upload a new profile picture.

This is what happened to me the other day when I posted something that I thought was funny and fairly innocuous in terms of its social impact. I’d been involved the night before in an unpleasant exchange with a woman in a pizza shop. She had a mask on and was choosing which slice of upscale designer focaccia she wanted to bring home to her Rittenhouse Square penthouse. At the end of the counter was a man, mask dangling from his ear, waiting for his own order to be warmed up and sipping on an espresso.  Here is how I described what happened next:

“From the right of me I hear, “Put on your mask.” I knew the comment wasn’t directed at me because I was already wearing the ineffective, butterfly-wing-thin piece of paper on my nose and mouth, something I call my Bocca Burqa, so that I could access the restaurant.

I looked around and realized that the woman was talking to the man who was waiting for his order, his own mask dangling from one ear as he sipped an espresso at the bar. He was more than 6 feet away from her.

The man said “Mind your own business, lady.” I would have been even less polite, so I gave him points. The woman, blessed with the flaming red hair her ancestors never had and struggling to mobilize cryogenically-frozen mouth muscles screamed (and I mean screamed) “Put your mask on you fat ass.”

The man was overweight, but I was always taught that you can only safely criticize the weight of blood relatives and Rosie O’Donnell, so I was shocked. The man replied in kind, saying “Shut up, bitch.”

And she gathered all of her powers of indignation and fury and launched the most scathing, deadly, hurtful thing she could come up with: “Fuc$ing Trump voter. I hope you die, but don’t you kill me!”

And then his order arrived and he went to a corner table to eat.

I was still in shock. I was debating whether to say anything when the woman told the cashier: “I live here and I’m not going to let that animal make me sick.”

And that did it. I said, “Ma’am, that was completely wrong. I’m wearing a mask. I’m vaccinated. But you are out of line. Did you have to be insulting? Calling him fat? And really? Trump? Last time I checked, Biden is president.”

She looked taken aback that someone who was superficially a fellow traveler (female, mask wearer, wearing animal print accessories) was criticizing her. But she rebounded quickly. “He’s a fat, ignorant anti-science Trumper.”

At that point the manager came to the register and looked at me and said, “Please, can you stop raising your voices and making a scene?”

And that’s when Joan of Arch Street emerged and said, pointing like Emile Zola in “J’accuse!”

“It was THAT woman. Her. She started it when she insulted that man (waving an accusatory finger at the embarrassed male diner). She called him fat. She called him a Trump voter. She is at fault.”

And then I looked at the manager and said, “I don’t need your pizza that badly. I need to be more than 6 feet away from HER.” (Accusatory finger shifts back to Redhead, who was as naturally Red as a California Redwood) and then I stormed out of the pizzeria.

As I trudged home, sans pizza and umbrella but with conviction, I realized that I do not want to be within 6 feet of anyone who makes masks and vaccines the hallmark of their humanity.”

That was the entire content of my post, give or take a few emojis.  It got a few thumbs up, lots of clicks, and I also shared it in a private Facebook group I belong to. Private groups are just that, private. Only those who have access to the group can see the posts, and I’m pretty sure that no one in this group objected to my post.

But lo and behold, I get a notice from Facebook that I was being suspended for three days because my post had “violated Community standards” by spreading “misinformation” about masks and vaccines.  That’s exactly what it said. I re-read my post, and while it did appear a bit cutting, particularly the comments about the lady’s flaming hair, I couldn’t find anything in it that disseminated false facts.  It was pure opinion, albeit snarky in tone (is there any other tone?)

Ironically, hours after I was told that I’d been put in Facebook Siberia, they took off my ankle bracelet and I was released. There was no warning nor explanation, I  just woke up the next morning and was able to post like a normal human being.  It wasn’t exactly Alexander Solzhenitsyn getting out of the Archipelago Zuckerberg, but it was rather momentous.  Apparently, my appeal to the Facebook gods had been reviewed and approved.

But I’m not celebrating. The fact that something I posted in a private social media group caught the attention of someone with Stasi propensities, and a knee-jerk decision was made based on partisan assumptions, is appalling.  The fact that an opinion was considered “dangerous” is Kafkaesque. The fact that making fun of a woman who was making fun of a man violates “Community standards” and we have no idea what those standards are really troubles me. It should trouble all of us.

Whatever your opinions on masks or vaccines or abortion or election fraud or Chris Cuomo or Larry Krasner, they’re your opinions. Opinions are not dangerous. You know what is, though?

Not being able to have them.