The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has begun a federal investigation into Binghamton University to determine if it has violated students’ free speech and free inquiry rights as protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The DOE published a letter notifying BU of the investigation on Sept. 15. The main purpose of the investigation is to determine whether or not BU’s promise of, “institutional protection for free speech and free inquiry rights are misleading to students, parents and consumers in the market for education credentials.”
“There seems to be evidence suggesting [BU] selectively applies its stated policies and procedures to discriminate against students based on the content of their speech and their decision to associate with groups such as the [BU College Republicans] and Young Americans for Freedom/Young America’s Foundation (“YAF”),” the letter stated. “Consequently, [the DOE] is opening an investigation to determine if [BU’s] conduct related to events occurring between Nov. 14 and Nov. 19, 2019 … violated applicable statutory, regulatory and/or contractual provisions.”
On Nov. 14, 2019, BU’s College Republicans and Turning Point USA (TPUSA), an organization not chartered by the Student Association (SA), were tabling on the Spine. Pro-gun signs were displayed on the tables, hours after a high school shooting in Santa Clarita, California. In response to this, approximately 200 protesters assembled on the Spine. Protesters dismantled tables while shouting, “No justice, no peace, no racist police” and “Pack it up.” 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.”
According to the letter published by the DOE, “preliminary information suggests [the protesters] were acting in concert pursuant to a conspiracy.”
“Contrary to law, the express object of this conspiracy was to injure, oppress, threaten or intimidate the College Republicans in the free exercise or enjoyment of their First Amendment rights,” the DOE wrote in the letter. “Reported social media messages confirming the conspiracy’s purpose included, [among other things], ‘[y]eah there’s not that many but f— em [sic] up anyways’ and ‘[t]oday on the spine Trump supporters are actively advocating for the Trump administration and gun violence. Join us at [2 p.m.] as we disrupt this disgusting space that [BU] has allowed students to create and protect the racism, homophobia and xenophobia that has erupted from Trump and his supporters.’”
Stephen Perez, a senior double-majoring in political science and sociology, was not involved in the protests, but believes that there are “glaring problems” on both sides. On one hand, Perez described those who would defend the actions of BU College Republicans and TPUSA on the basis of free speech as “limited in their conception of what political protest should and ought to be.”
“University faculty and police are only able to contain the limits of political activity insofar at the social conditions of students allow,” Perez wrote. “Put simply, as students get poorer, hungrier and face the brunt of their position in society, in terms of race, class, etc., they will seek aims that better their lot, no matter how extreme they may be. Disruptive political activity is useful and impactful, and progressive students are right to question the motives behind University policy that aims to limit them.”
On Nov. 18, 2019, economist Arthur Laffer, who worked as an adviser to President Donald Trump and former President Ronald Reagan, was scheduled to speak at BU College Republicans’ and Young America’s Foundations’ (YAF) “Trump, Tariffs, Trade Wars” event in Lecture Hall 8. Over 200 attendees at the lecture were part of a sit-in protest, which resulted in Laffer being removed from the lecture hall by UPD and two hired protective agents from Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations, Inc.
The letter claims that the University knew about the protest as well as “the wrongs conspired to be done and about to be committed,” but the University either neglected or refused to stop the protesters.
“Upon information and belief, the object, purpose and intention of the conspirators’ agreement were combined action to deny and intimidate Laffer, YAF members, College Republican members and other community members in the exercise of their First Amendment and other constitutional rights,” the letter read.
According to the letter, it is ambiguous whether BU’s actions were driven by management failures, political bias or hostile feelings against BU’s College Republicans, YAF and political conservatives, or other factors.
“Regardless, those actions and omissions suggest serious reason for the [DOE] to be concerned that [BU’s] many representations about free speech and student conduct to students, parents and consumers in the market for education certificates may be false, erroneous or misleading,” the letter stated.
BU College Republicans, TPUSA, Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow (PLOT) and BU Progressives declined to comment.
Yarosh said the University will “respond to the investigation accordingly.”
“As an institution of higher education, [BU] is committed to freedom of speech, academic inquiry and the exchange of ideas as part of our mission,” Yarosh wrote in an email. “[BU] maintains that we acted consistently with this mission and with the requirements of the First Amendment and the Higher Education Act.”
Although he thinks their ideas are underdeveloped, Perez believes BU College Republicans and others are right to question free speech rights on college campuses.
“As scholars have termed it, ‘safetyism,’ can turn the virtue of safety into a harmful notion when students become unwilling and unable to interact with any ideas that they deem ‘dangerous,’” Perez wrote. “The free exchange of ideas is vital to the University if we still value knowledge production and critical thinking.”
Correction: In a previous version of this article, we reported that BU College Republicans had their SA charter suspended because they failed to obtain the proper approval by the SA prior to tabling on the Spine on Nov. 14. However, BU College Republicans actually had their access to BThere, the website BU organizations use to request tabling reservations, suspended. The BU College Republicans’ SA charter was not suspended. According to Jacob Eckhaus, SA vice president for finance and a senior double-majoring in accounting and business administration, this penalty is in accordance with the “precedent surrounding organizations who violate policies regulating room reservations or tabling.” Eckhaus added that BU College Republicans have “retained all other rights and privileges afforded to our chartered organizations, including budget access and a BEngaged page.” Pipe Dream regrets the error.