Broome County has been a hotbed of political activity in recent weeks. With protests both on and off campus, tensions have run high. Local politicians such as State Sen. Fred Akshar have condemned the protest of Arthur Laffer, an economist who planned to speak at Binghamton University. Akshar stated campuses “should be places where ideas and peaceful discourse can be shared.” He has also argued that “leftist mob mentality and brute force intimidation have been given preference over free speech and the right to peacefully assemble.” However, it’s worth looking at this debacle a little bit closer. “Freedom of speech” has become a buzzword for the modern right. It’s been weaponized against political opponents, but entirely neglected when it comes to its own side. Akshar, based on his track record, is the last person who should be calling out the silencing of speech when he is guilty of what he accuses BU students of participating in.
Recently, the Broome County Legislature considered passing the “Emergency First Responders Protection Act of 2019.” The main issue with this act is that it will make it a misdemeanor to engage in any behavior that intends to “annoy, alarm or threaten the personal safety of the emergency first responder,” resulting in a possible year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Nine peaceful protesters were arrested during a protest while legislators discussed the proposal. This annoyance provision is quite troubling. Who defines what’s “annoying?” What one says is annoying, another may say is restrained. The law is too broad and unconstitutional because it bars speech that’s “annoying.” I fear this wording could allow officers to effectively criminalize protests. Since the law could be used whenever an officer is “performing his or her official duties,” officers at protests could target marginalized communities and dissenters, hindering their right to free speech, association and protest. To those who may not see the problem with this, imagine if a college campus made a policy that no one would be allowed to say anything that “annoys” professors, or “annoys” students. What would you think then? My guess would be that we must welcome disagreement and allow free discourse. Why must that standard not apply to everyone?
Yet, oddly enough, Akshar is nowhere to be found. He supports the bill and hasn’t expressed support of the protesters who were using their freedom to protest, which is also found in the First Amendment, when they were arrested. In fact, arraignments for those arrested at the protests were held over two weeks ago. He could have called for the charges to be dropped, but instead, crickets. The state senator chose to condemn BU students instead of fighting for actual freedom of speech and fighting this unconstitutional legislation.
Furthermore, let’s look at Akshar’s last session in the New York State Senate. He voted in favor of S2493A, a bill which aimed to “prohibit student organizations that participate in hate speech, including advocating for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel and American allied nations from receiving public funding.” What happened to being in favor of “free speech?” What happened to the free marketplace of ideas? Akshar did what many politicians do: lie and play politics. It was never about the First Amendment or freedom of speech, it was all about political expediency and partisanship. This law is a blatant attack on freedom of speech, targeted at the BDS movement. Whether you agree with the bill or not, if you are arguing for freedom of speech and not bothered by the fact Akshar and 47 other state senators voted in favor of the bill, there’s a contradiction at play.
That’s not all that can be said of Akshar, however. It’s stunning he would dare call out students for acting with “leftist mob mentality and brute force intimidation” when two people died under his watch when he worked as the captain of law enforcement division and undersheriff at the Broome County Sheriff’s Office. The brute force is real. However, the actual abuse, neglect and force is not being propagated by “leftist mob” protesters, it’s at the Broome County Jail, a jail where at least 13 people have died since 2000, with the latest death coming just last month. Under Akshar’s watch, multiple people have died while many more have spoken anonymously, fearing retribution of beatings and medical neglect. The real brutality going on is coming from people like Akshar, the reverse being nothing less than an Orwellian fabrication.
I frankly find it astounding that a state senator would criticize BU students for their behavior, while also supporting bills and institutions that are fundamentally against free speech and liberty. Akshar is guilty of the exact things he is accusing others of; he even supports an unconstitutional bill to criminalize “annoying” the police. He voted in favor of an unconstitutional anti-BDS bill. He had the ability to affect change in the Broome County Jail as the captain of law enforcement division, but continued the status quo. Akshar is the last person who should be lecturing others about freedom and justice.
Seth Gully is a sophomore triple-majoring in philosophy, politics and law, economics and French.