As protests have erupted on Binghamton University’s campus, administrators and student leaders have been faced with questions about freedom of speech and expression.
The University has come under fire from multiple government officials and right-wing online blogs after student activists protested members of College Republicans and Turning Point USA while they were tabling to promote gun rights and an event featuring Arthur Laffer, a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan and President Donald Trump. Days later, at “Trump, Tariffs, Trade Wars,” Laffer was interrupted after a few sentences by one of many sit-in protesters. Laffer eventually left the event, and the initial protest speaker was arrested by Binghamton’s New York State University Police (UPD) officers.
The protesters aimed to draw attention to racism on campus, inaction on the part of University administrators and police brutality.
However, arguments against the protesters quickly surfaced online, with some students receiving racist and threatening messages. Additionally, misinformation, including rumors that the protests were being led by Antifa, began circulating online in right-wing forums.
Some arguments against protesters claim the demonstrations call for the use of the heckler’s veto. According to The First Amendment Encyclopedia, the heckler’s veto gives governing bodies the right to suppress speech in the event in “which opponents block speech by direct action or by ‘shouting down’ a speaker through protest.” The veto was first recognized by the Supreme Court in the 1966 Brown v. Louisiana case.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan nonprofit that aims to maintain individual rights in university communities, wrote a response to Monday’s protest saying the heckler’s veto applies to this situation, giving UPD the right to interfere with the protest.
“The First Amendment right to peaceful protest doesn’t override someone else’s First Amendment right to speak — and to hear those they’ve invited to speak — in spaces they’ve reserved,” FIRE’s statement read.
Several government officials have also written direct responses to Monday’s protest, including State Sen. Fred Akshar (R-Binghamton).
“Like many campuses across the country, it appears that leftist mob mentality and brute force intimidation have been given preference over free speech and the right to peacefully assemble,” Akshar wrote in a statement on Twitter on Nov. 18.
Akshar also canceled a scheduled appearance at the University on Tuesday, writing that “Binghamton University’s campus has no longer become suitable for civic engagement.” After meeting with Binghamton University’s College Republicans and College Democrats on Wednesday, Akshar wrote that he hopes to “[continue] the dialogue on policy and a variety of other important issues at future meetings with both groups.”
The University’s Student Association has also seen criticism from conservative students online after SA President Emma Ross announced College Republicans have been banned from making room reservations. According to Ross, the organization was tabling on the Spine on Nov. 14 without reserving the space, a direct violation of Student Association (SA) rules.
University officials said the public statements made by government officials, including Akshar, are based primarily on their own political gain. While the University is currently investigating the protests, Brian Rose, vice president for student affairs, said these statements hold no power in their current and future decisions.
“Opinions expressed by political figures for political purposes have had no bearing on our decision-making, and won’t have any bearing on our decision-making,” Rose said. “I’m not interested in aligning ideas or statements with any external statement — we’re going to continue to be guided by our own values, our own principles and our own policies and procedures and our understanding of our responsibility under law.”
Rose also said the University is making plans to prevent this situation from happening again.
“We certainly are already in conversations about what type of programming and ways we can facilitate a campus conversation, particularly in the context of the upcoming national election,” Rose said.
Donald Nieman, vice president for academic affairs and provost, said he knows several professors have taken it upon themselves to have in-class discussions about the recent events. Nieman said discussion like this is productive.
“I think it is probably in those small groups, medium-sized groups, that you have an opportunity for discussion for reflection and to get away from an environment where people are more about theatre and acting out than they are about a dialogue, and I know a quite a bit of that has gone on,” Nieman said.