Young America’s Foundation (YAF), a national conservative youth organization, has announced a federal civil rights lawsuit against Binghamton University administrators and active campus groups over an alleged violation of constitutional rights during student protests last November.
YAF is joined by the BU College Republicans and Jon Lizak, president of College Republicans and a sophomore majoring in business administration, who contend First and Fourteenth Amendment violations. According to court documents, President Harvey Stenger, Vice President for Student Affairs Brian Rose, BU Chief of Police John Pelletier, BU College Progressives and Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow (PLOT) are named as defendants.
On Nov. 14, 2019, BU College Republicans and Turning Point USA (TPUSA), an organization not chartered by the Student Association (SA), were tabling with pro-gun signs. The students tabling were met with protesters who attempted to dismantle the table, shouting, “No justice, no peace, no racist police” and “Pack it up.” The SA said they did not allow the organization to table. According to Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations at BU, Binghamton’s New York State University Police (UPD) were dispatched following reports of conversations becoming “loud, aggressive and possibly volatile.”
YAF released an article about the protests on Nov. 15, claiming that conservative students were harassed. In a statement released by the College Republicans on Nov. 17, the group claimed they were promoting an upcoming event sponsored by YAF featuring economist Arthur Laffer, former advisor to former President Ronald Reagan and President Donald Trump.
The protests gained criticism from conservatives nationwide after Trump denounced the protesters at TPUSA’s Student Action Summit last December. Lacey Kestecher, a sophomore majoring in business administration and 2019-20 president of College Republicans, was invited to the summit and brought up to the podium alongside Trump.
In February, Frances Beal Society leaked audio recordings and text messages claimed to be between the members of College Republicans where they were deliberately planning for a lawsuit to occur.
“We have a plan — go to the SA, try and get chartered, get denied and then open up a lawsuit against [BU] for freedom of speech,” the text read.
A voice in the recording was heard saying “Scorched earth! Kill them! Get them!” with others joining in. In the audio recording, the voice said to be Kestecher by the Francis Beal Society, proposed wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat around campus while saying “Honestly, if they jump me, big money.”
On Nov. 18, 2019, the event with Laffer named “Trump, Tariffs and Trade Wars” was interrupted by protesters. Laffer was immediately escorted out by UPD after students began to tell stories of racial injustice over a bullhorn during his speech.
Andrew Hruska, an attorney at King & Spalding and co-counsel on the case, spoke about ensuring constitutional rights and allowing outside speakers to speak freely.
“What this lawsuit is about is trying to ensure freedom of speech,” Hruska said. “Making sure that students have the right to speak freely on campus, to bring in outside speakers who will speak freely on campus on issues of public importance and the responsibility that the University has to ensure that it can happen. That didn’t happen here.”
Hruska went on to discuss the role of the University in protecting the constitutional rights of students in an official setting.
“[BU] is a state institution, so it has all the responsibility of any state government agency,” Hruska said. “It has to protect free speech of students and what happens on the campus. If someone comes onto the campus to speak and was invited to be there, and in this case, the University recognized the occasion because it was part of an official University event, then the University has to protect that and make sure it can happen.”
The lawsuit cites the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform v. Black case that took place at the University at Buffalo and the “SUNY-Buffalo Settlement” that resulted from it. The lawsuit claims President Stenger was aware of the settlement, which stated that SUNY had agreed to “take all reasonable measures to enforce its policies against deliberately disrupting or preventing the freedom of any person to express his or her views.”
The lawsuit accuses defendants Stenger, Rose and Pelletier of enacting an unwritten policy to prohibit “unpopular” speech on campus.
“The Speech Suppression Policy has been enacted, created and put in place by Defendant Stenger, President of [BU], as a policy maker,” the document stated. “The Speech Suppression Policy authorizes [BU] officials, including Defendants Stenger, Rose and Pelletier, to prohibit, chill, oppose and shut down speech with which they, or other students and faculty, disagree.“
The suit claims that Stenger, Rose and Pelletier failed to take action on behalf of the College Republicans’ constitutional rights and instead supported the actions of the College Progressives at the tabling event.
During the Arthur Laffer protest, the BU administration gave protesters a room nearby the event to voice their disagreement. According to Hruska, the University intentionally neglected to address the Laffer protests, which violated SUNY rules by giving protesters direct access to the event.
“We are looking for a court order that says my clients’ constitutional rights were violated,” Hruska said. “Second, we are looking for damages. There were costs incurred to bring Dr. Laffer to campus and all that money was lost, so the defendants should pay that back. We are also asking for punitive damages which is a little unusual in these cases but is important because this is not the first time the SUNY system has been subject to this type of case. Punitive damages are necessary to reinforce the point that the University cannot act with impunity, it must obey the Constitution.”
Documents regarding the Laffer protest claim that students from the College Progressives, members of PLOT and more filled the lecture hall. The suit states that the UPD’s removal of Dr. Laffer demonstrates a heckler’s veto on the free speech of the plaintiff.
“Plaintiffs also observed that members of College Progressives and PLOT standing in the rows, side aisles and back of the lecture hall were wearing black face masks to disguise their identities, armbands (with PLOT insignia), hooded sweatshirts (with PLOT insignia), pins (with PLOT insignia) and red shirts (with PLOT insignia).”
The suit states that the use of face masks to disguise identity in a public setting was in direct violation of a nearly 200-year-old anti-mask statute. The statute was later repealed to encourage the use of masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The court documents also refer to posters that were shared on social media as Exhibits 5, 6 and 7 in which the College Progressives and PLOT posted intent to disrupt the protesters and urged others to participate.
The College Progressives declined to comment on the issue, per advisement by the SA to not comment on pending litigation. PLOT and UPD also declined to comment.
On behalf of the University, Yarosh released a statement in response to the lawsuit.
“As an institution of higher education, freedom of speech is fundamental to our core mission; academic inquiry and the exchange of ideas rest on the principle that all have a right to express their beliefs,” Yarosh said. “[BU] maintains that we acted consistent with this mission and with the requirements of the First Amendment and we will respond to the complaint accordingly.”
The scheduling order for the lawsuit is scheduled to be held on Oct. 21 at 10 a.m. The conference will be conducted by way of telephone and is a public event.