Thursday, October 1, 2020

When we want your opinion, we'll give it to you: Feds investigate charge that SUNY Binghamton falsely represents that it respects free speech

 Last month, the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation against SUNY Binghamton, a public university located about 140 miles west of New York City. According to DOE's official "Notice of Investigation," the feds suspect the university of falsely representing to students and others that it respects free speech.

DOE accuses a public university of breaking its promise to protect free speech

Here is the chain of events as laid out in DOE's notice. On November 14, 2019, the College Republicans, a conservative student group, set up a display table on the Binghamton campus where they handed out flyers and promoted an upcoming lecture by Professor Arthur Laffer, a conservative economist. 

Student protesters shouted threats and obscenities at the group and "allegedly destroyed [the group's] materials and tables and attempted to chase them away." A video of the incident shows that the campus police did nothing to stop the disruption.

The following day, a lawyer for the Young Americans for Freedom, a co-sponsor of Professor Laffer's lecture, met with Barbara Scarlett, SUNY Bingingham's campus lawyer, and asked for assurances that the university would protect students' constitutional right to freedom of assembly during Professor Laffer's talk. 

Reportedly, Scarlett refused to give this assurance, so the organization hired two Pinkerton agents to protect Professor Laffer.

 Before the night of Professor Laffer's lecture, campus police discovered social media posts indicating that protesters intended to disrupt the event. Two officers met the professor at the airport and advised him not to speak and to leave town. 

On the day of Professor Laffer's presentation, the campus police told the student sponsors that the university had set aside a room adjacent to the lecture hall for the specific purpose of allowing protesters to gather. 

Against the campus police's advice, Professor Laffer spoked at the appointed time and place. Shortly before his lecture was to commence, hundreds of students and non-students entered the hall. "Dozens wore masks" and some wore clothing that indicated an affiliation with BING PLOT, which DOE described as a "violent organization."

According to DOE:

Dr. Laffer went to the podium and, within seconds, conspirators in the second row began shouting to prevent him from speaking. One emerged from the side of the hall to hand a bullhorn to [a] shouting protester,  thereby preventing Dr. Laffer from being heard. Others joined in the hostile display, drowning out Dr. Laffer and denying other students the right to hear his views.

Instead of making a good faith effort to restore order to allow the lecture to continue, university police ordered Dr. Laffer's removal by the Pinkerton agents. This ended the lecture, allowing the conspirators to unlawfully deny and intimidate Dr. Laffer and the students who came to listen in the exercise of their First Amendment rights.

As DOE noted, it found no record that SUNY Binghamton disciplined any student who disrupted Professor Laffer's speech. Nevertheless, on the day following the lecture, the university sent the College Republicans a message saying it was being suspended as a chartered student organization because it had not gotten prior approval before putting up its display table on November 14.

SUNY Binghamton's woeful inaction when a mob stopped Professor Laffer's lecture is in stark contrast to the university's repeated assertions that it encourages free speech and condemns conduct that interferes with the rights of others.  In fact, the university's student handbook makes this explicit statement:

Conduct that interferes with or threatens the operation of the university or the rights of others, either in or out of the classroom, is not condoned.

And the university also solemnly pledged that the "full exercise of First Amendment rights is encouraged and protected."

In its complaint against SUNY Binghamton, DOE pointed out that the university charges $10,000 a year in tuition and fees and that it expressly promises its students "that they will have the freedom to speak, learn, challenge, and dissent."  

In DOE's view, the events surrounding Professor Lasser's aborted lecture give rise to the allegation that SUNY Bingham broke its promises to protect free speech and violated federal law.  DOE closed its letter with a reminder that it has the power to hold "a fine hearing," if it concludes that the university "made substantial misrepresentations about the nature of its educational program."

Why is the Laffer episode significant?

If you are a young person thinking about enrolling at SUNY Binghamton, what does the Professor Laffer episode mean to you? 

Perhaps nothing. If you believe that ideas like those held by Dr. Laffer are not worthy of constitutional protection, SUNY Binghamton is precisely the kind of university where you want to study. And you may be willing to take out student loans to pay your tuition bills.

But if you want to study at a university that respects free speech, encourages open dialogue, and protects the constitutional right of students to explore unpopular ideas, you probably don't want to enroll at SUNY Binghamton.

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