A Duke University executive has come under fire for his role in the termination of two on-campus coffee shop employees after he took offense to a rap song playing in the store while they were working there.
Indy Week reported on Tuesday that, last Friday, Duke Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta made a complaint to his usual on-campus coffee spot, Joe Van Gogh, about a song by Young Dolph called “Get Paid” that was playing. (The lyrics include the N-word and some swearing.)
After Moneta told Britni Brown, the barista who was working the register, that the song was inappropriate, she immediately turned it off, apologized, and offered him a muffin free of charge, Indy Week wrote. Her coworker, Kevin Simmons, took notice of the situation and later described Moneta as verbally harassing Brown. Moneta insisted on paying for the muffin, and left.
Three days later, the two baristas were called into a meeting with a Joe Van Gogh’s human resources representative at a different location and informed that they were being fired. A recording of the conversation with HR rep Amanda Wiley was obtained by Indy Week:
“We had gotten a call from Robert Coffey of Duke saying that the VP of the university had come into the shop and that there was vulgar music playing,” Wiley said, according to the recording. “Joe Van Gogh is contracted by Duke University, so we essentially work for them. And they can shut us down at any point.”
Wiley cleared her throat. “Duke University has instructed us to terminate the employees that were working that day,” she said.
According to Joe Van Gogh, the university insisted the employees be let go for allowing a song that came on a curated Spotify playlist to continue playing while they did their jobs during a rush—even though there never appeared to be any guidelines on what kind of music was allowed to be played. A manager of the same location who spoke anonymously to Indy Week said that she was initially instructed to fire only Brown, a black woman, but was later instructed to also fire Simmons, a white man:
“For [Simmons, a white man] to be fired because of this, it is not fair,” Brown, who had worked at Joe Van Gogh for nearly a year and a half, told Wiley. “I feel like you guys were trying to cover it up as to make it not look discriminatory for firing a person of color.”
In an email to the Duke Chronicle, Moneta said that the song “Get Paid” was inappropriate for children. He said that, after he “expressed” his “objections” to the staff over the song, he got in touch with Coffey to further complain. “That was the end of my involvement,” he wrote. He also insisted that the decision to fire the employees was up to Joe Van Gogh—which directly contradicts Joe Van Gogh’s recorded claim that it was ordered by Duke to fire Brown and Simmons.
From the Duke Chronicle:
“The employees who chose to play the song in a business establishment on the Duke campus made a poor decision which was conveyed to the JVG management,” Moneta wrote. “How they responded to the employees’ behavior was solely at their discretion.”
Given the power dynamic involved, and that Joe Van Gogh is contracted by Duke, it’s not very convincing that the actions of the school’s vice president of student affairs had nothing to do with Brown and Simmons’ fate.
What makes this even more interesting is the fact that Moneta himself has a past defending “freedom of speech,” largely in light of the use of racist hate speech on campus. Nearly two weeks ago, Moneta caught flak for tweeting about the freedom of speech a day after a releasing a statement condemning an incident in which a student was caught using racially derogatory language on Snapchat (though he insisted the language itself was not in violation of Duke policies on expression). Shortly after Moneta’s free speech tweet was posted, Duke sent out an email to campus residents regarding another racially motivated incident: a racial slur had been written on a residence door on campus. But sure, freedom of expression!
Moneta himself addressed the inconsistency of defending freedom of speech but complaining about a rap song in his email to the Duke Chronicle:
“To those who feel that I’ve flipped on my positions on free expression, I say this. The artist who wrote, recorded and performed the music is absolutely entitled to do so, however offensive I might find the lyrics.”
That’s really nice that he can be offended at Young Dolph, but that has nothing to do with why Britni Brown and Kevin Simmons don’t have jobs anymore. I have reached out to Duke University for comment and will update if I hear back.