In an effort to continue the discussion surrounding students’ constitutional rights on-campus, multiple Binghamton University groups teamed up to facilitate a conversation among student panelists about campus police and First Amendment rights.
“Policing the First Amendment: A Roundtable Debate on Police and First Amendment Rights” was a collaboration between the BU Scholars, BU Speech and Debate, Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), the Graduate Student Organization (GSO), Multicultural Resource Center (MRC), Student Association (SA) and the UDiversity Educational Institute. The forum discussed policing for the campus community and the right to assemble, specifically protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Sponsors and hosts of this forum were the CCE and the Division of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Joseph Leeson-Schatz, director of BU Speech and Debate and lecturer of English, was the primary organizer and moderator.
Brian Rose, vice president for student affairs, provided the opening remarks for the forum, stating that he was impressed by the attendance and audience questions.
“I am grateful to [the sponsors and hosts] and to the student participants for modeling how we can discuss sometimes divisive questions in a manner that allows us to listen to and learn from each other,” Rose said. “As [Leeson-Schatz] noted in pointing to an April program, this is not a single event, but rather part of a larger effort to continue to provide similar opportunities for community dialogue. I hope the takeaways are that we can talk to one another from different points of view while still respecting each other and that we should always be open to reexamining our own perspectives.”
Nicole Sirju-Johnson, director of the MRC and assistant vice president for DEI, said the part of the series being held April 14 will be a campus deliberation on First Amendment rights. The entire campus community is invited to attend. The committee is currently recruiting interested individuals and will provide training to those wishing to serve as deliberation facilitators.
According to Leeson-Schatz, the forum was in response to two student-led protests that occurred on-campus in November 2019. On Nov. 14, 2019, approximately 200 students protested the BU College Republicans’ and Turning Point USA’s tabling event in support of gun rights hours after a high school shooting in Santa Clarita, California. On Nov. 18, 2019, economist Arthur Laffer, who worked as an adviser to former President Donald Trump and former President Ronald Reagan, was scheduled to speak at the BU College Republicans’ and Young America’s Foundation’s (YAF) “Trump, Tariffs, Trade Wars” event. Over 200 attendees at the lecture were part of a sit-in protest, which resulted in Laffer being removed from the lecture hall by Binghamton’s New York State University Police (UPD) and two hired protective agents from Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations, Inc.
Following these events, the Young America’s Foundation (YAF), a national conservative youth organization, filed a civil rights lawsuit against those they felt were violating their First and 14th Amendment rights. Other plaintiffs listed on the court document include the BU College Republicans and Jon Lizak, then president of the BU College Republicans and a sophomore majoring in business administration. BU President Harvey Stenger, Rose, UPD Chief John Pelletier, BU College Progressives, the SA and Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow (PLOT) were named as defendants in court documents.
Sirju-Johnson said this most recent forum was part of the University’s effort to give students an opportunity to explore campus safety, including freedom of speech, the limits of the First Amendment rights and student engagement with campus police.
“Since the November 2019 incidents, more recently, several racist incidents have taken place on-campus, some of which have centered on freedom of speech,” Sirju-Johnson said. “And while we do not condone the vile comments made, we thought it important to have a discussion on some of the tenets of free speech.”
Prior to this week’s forum, the University had put together a roundtable free speech debate in the fall [link here: https://www.bupipedream.com/news/118842/auto-draft-571/]. Leeson-Schatz said topics of the most recent debate were decided based on last semester’s roundtable and by talking with students directly through the planning committee. Students were also consulted directly through the CCE and MRC. The two most requested topics were centered around free speech and police brutality.
“We workshopped the specific questions with our group and through communicating with students, and then finally our speakers,” Leeson-Schatz said. “Our hope was to create a series of events that produced an intelligent dialogue between the various perspectives to enable a better understanding and a path forward. I think it was great to see the diversity of the panel agree on certain aspects of the topics and disagree on others, but in all situations have an understanding of what the other side was saying and treating them with respect.”
Coleen Watson, a social, political, ethical and legal (SPEL) philosophy doctoral candidate and SPEL philosophy GSO president, was a panelist at the forum. She said the debate was constructive and hopes the forum will empower students to discuss controversial issues with each other and improve the campus environment.
“I wanted to share my views that I think are both nuanced and correct while hearing out what others had to say,” Watson said. “At the end of this, I was pretty surprised how much we all agreed on despite ostensibly being from all over the political spectrum.”
Logan Blakeslee, another panelist at the forum and a sophomore majoring in history, agreed the debate was a collegial experience.
“I hope [attendees] took away the idea that there is hope for compromise and mutual understanding,” Blakeslee said. “Pitting liberal and conservative students against on another constantly is unproductive, whereas the recent debate showed that there is common ground where a reasonable solution can be found to modern problems.”
Kate Marin, a third panelist and a junior double-majoring in psychology and linguistics, proposed an alternative security team outside the context of an actual police force. According to Marin, this group would operate under the authority of the University. All panelists reached a consensus that this alternative force would have its benefits.
“Our goal is to continue the dialogue on the importance of listening to one another, even when we have varying, polarizing opinions,” Sirju-Johnson said. “To continue the conversation about differing viewpoints — and yet, create a space and time for members of the community to come together to listen to one another respectfully — all of which can be done to bridge relationships.”
Riccardo Monico contributed reporting to this article.