After a Duke University administrator complained that the song playing in a campus coffee shop was vulgar and offensive, the store’s management asked two employees who had been working in the shop at the time to resign. Uproar over the incident sparked an on-campus protest, garnered national media attention, and led to criticism of the administrator’s perceived hypocrisy. Days later, the coffee shop cut ties with the university.
Larry Moneta, who complained about the music in the coffee shop, is vice president for student affairs at Duke University, where he has worked since 2001. He oversees numerous student services, including housing, dining, health care, and student activities. In the past, Moneta has been a vocal defender of Free Speech.
Britni Brown and Kevin Simmons are the baristas who were working at the Joe Van Gogh coffee shop, a privately owned facility on Duke’s campus, when Moneta heard the music that offended him. Brown, a black woman, interacted with Moneta at the register, while Simmons, a white man, looked on as he made drinks. Both were penalized for the incident.
On Friday, May 4, 2018, Moneta — a regular customer at the Joe Van Gogh coffee shop at Duke — went into the store for his usual order. The song playing at the time, “Get Paid” by rapper Young Dolph, contains multiple profanities, including the n-word. Moneta objected to the song’s content, later explaining in an email that he thought the sexual lyrics were “quite inappropriate for a working environment that serves children among others.”
Moneta complained to Brown, who was operating the register and was in charge of the store’s music playlist that day. She immediately shut off the song, apologized to Moneta, and offered him a muffin free of charge. He declined, and insisted he pay for it. Simmons, another barista who was on duty at the time, recalled the exchange and noted how upset the customer seemed. He later claimed Moneta was “verbally harassing” Brown.
After leaving the shop, Moneta contacted Robert Coffey, Duke’s director of dining services, to express his concerns. Coffey in turn called Robbie Roberts, the owner of Joe Van Gogh, to relay the message. About 10 minutes after Moneta left the coffee shop, Roberts called Brown to inquire about the incident. The barista said she took responsibility and apologized again.
Duke spokesperson Michael Schoenfeld said there are no university policies describing what kind of music should be played in on-campus facilities, but that there is a “general expectation” that the music be appropriate for families and children who might patronize the shop.
On May 7, Brown and Simmons were called into Joe Van Gogh’s main office in the nearby town of Hillsborough, where they met with Amanda Wiley, a human resources representative from the company, which operates stores throughout North Carolina. Wiley asked the two baristas to resign and offered them severance packages in exchange, reported Indy Week.
At that meeting, Brown voiced her concern that firing Simmons was unfair. “I feel like you guys were trying to cover it up as to make it not look discriminatory for firing a person of color,” she reportedly told Wiley.
Wiley claimed “Duke University [had] instructed [Joe Van Gogh] to terminate the employees that were working that day,” reported Indy Week. However, Moneta insisted in a statement to the Chronicle of Higher Education that his call to Coffey had been “the end of [his] involvement” in the incident, and that Joe Van Gogh’s response “to the employees’ behavior was solely at their discretion.” Schoenfeld, the university spokesperson, denied that Duke had requested the employees’ termination, asserting that the coffee shop wholly controls hiring and firing of its staff. Moneta said that “it was never [his] intent that any of the Joe Van Gogh employees be terminated.”
Moneta accused of hypocrisy for inconsistent stance on free expression
Moneta came under fire after the incident because some, including many Duke students, construed his complaint about the music playing in the coffee shop as an attempt at censorship. As such, his action seemed to contradict his previous defenses of Free Speech.
In August 2017, Moneta had authored an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed that criticized the toppling of Confederate statues, equating it to vandalism and calling instead for “their removal through legitimate, law-abiding processes.” In April 2018, he tweeted that “freedom of expression protects the oppressed far more than the oppressors.”
The Duke administrator defended his stance on Free Speech, saying, “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.”
Students and employees protest outside coffee shop and at Moneta’s office
On May 9, more than a dozen protesters gathered outside the Joe Van Gogh coffee shop on campus, according to The Charlotte Observer. The group — made up of students and coffee shop employees, including the two who had been terminated — blared “Get Paid” on a loop as they marched to Moneta’s office. He allowed some of the protesters in for a brief discussion, according to the Observer.
Young Dolph, the rapper behind “Get Paid,” was also critical of Moneta, writing in a May 9 tweet that he “don’t give a dam about nobody but his self.” A few days after the incident, Young Dolph donated $20,000 to the two terminated employees.
Joe Van Gogh leadership apologizes, cuts ties with Duke
On the same day, Roberts, owner of the Joe Van Gogh chain, apologized for how the company had handled the incident and invited the two employees to return to the company. He also clarified that the university was not at fault for the firing.
Brown said she was not interested in Roberts’ offer. “I have already made my mind up that I am not returning to Duke or Joe Van Gogh,” she told the Observer, calling Duke “a white supremacist campus.”
Two days later, Joe Van Gogh announced it would end its relationship with Duke and shut down its on-campus location. In a post on the company’s website, Roberts wrote that it was “the right thing to do to preserve Joe Van Gogh’s brand independence without conditions.” The company offered jobs elsewhere in the company to all employees who had worked at the university location, including Brown and Simmons.
Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20
Uploaded June 27, 2018