On Oct. 8, Pipe Dream reported that Binghamton University is being investigated by the Department of Education for allegedly failing to protect the free speech rights of conservative student groups. Two months earlier, the BU College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation (YAF) had filed a lawsuit alleging the existence of a ‘Speech Suppression Policy’ which supposedly “authorizes [BU] officials …. to prohibit, chill, oppose and shut down speech with which they, or other students and faculty, disagree.” Now that one of the most tense cultural cleavages has made its way into BU, we must ask what exactly the debate over “freedom of speech” means in the realm of academia.
On Nov. 14, 2019, the College Republicans and Turning Point USA (TPUSA) held a preplanned tabling event, displaying pro-gun signs. Earlier that day, in Santa Clarita, California, there was a school shooting in which the gunman killed two students before shooting himself. Even after the news broke here in New York, the students chose to keep the pro-gun signs up. This crucial stipulation, in my view, is what led to roughly 200 students showing up to the Spine in order to protest the group.
We often overlook the reality that with freedom comes the responsibility of how we use our freedoms, and the associated consequences of our actions. Thus, whenever we express ourselves, particularly when expressing unpopular opinions, we must likewise be prepared to own up to the consequences of our actions. So when these student groups chose to continue displaying their signs, even after hearing there was a mass shooting and were well aware that these images may provoke a passionate reaction, they shouldn’t be surprised, or even complain, when other students respond to them — even in a group of 200.
It’s also been noted that TPUSA has not yet been chartered by the BU Student Association (SA), nor did they receive a permit to table. However, since BU is a public institution, it is subject to First Amendment regulations, particularly the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, which guarantees freedom of expression in public schools with the exception of speech which causes undue disruption to the educational process (e.g. inappropriate behavior in a classroom). So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the First Amendment rights of these groups trumps University regulation.
That being said, I believe that some at the initial protest went too far in destroying the property of the student groups. Likewise, I also believe that the disruption of Arthur Laffer’s “Trump, Tariffs, Trade Wars” events was unacceptable. Even if one can’t grant me that it is morally wrong to disrupt unpopular speech, from a practical standpoint there is no utility in doing so and is politically regressive, allowing groups such as TPUSA to use these incidents in order to demonize the opposition.
Despite the actions of these protesters, upon carefully and objectively examining the University’s response to these events and the protests they sparked, although insufficient, it seems there’s nothing to prove the existence of any “Speech Suppression Policy.” This isn’t to say that no one should have been accountable for the disruption of Laffer’s speaking engagement, but that accountability falls on the individuals and the organizations which promoted the disruption of the event, not the University administration.
It has become typical of conservatives across the country to often deride institutions of higher education for allegedly promoting a “liberal agenda,” and by extension suppressing conservative viewpoints. As such, conservatives have taken the mantle as the defenders of freedom of speech and groups, such as TPUSA and its BU chapter have used November’s events to catapult themselves into the national spotlight, garnering notoriety in conservative circles. Yet when Black Lives Matter protesters are assaulted by police, or detained without due process, these groups have remained silent, revealing the true purpose of these accusations and others like them across the nation.
Conservative groups don’t really care about defending free speech rights, or at least the free speech rights of their opponents. Rather, conservative organizations employ a “scorched Earth” approach to politics, seeking to incite political tensions as they did last November not just for the purpose of publicity, but to take political conversations away from major issues and shift them toward the actions of individuals, who are framed as being representative of the entire political opposition (i.e. “the Left”).
Although I believe the traditional left-right binary is an inaccurate method of viewing our politics, this country is indeed divided. Not between left and right, however, but between students with a multicultural outlook and those who are more nationalistic — two competing ideas of what the country should look like. The battle for free speech is the latest manifestation of the culture war, with students caught up in interpersonal conflict, calling one another every kind of “-ist” in the book (e.g. fascist, communist, etc.), while ignoring the substance of the issues they are fighting about.
But rather than debating the issues in and of themselves, one side seeks to incite others for political gain, while the other falls for it. Let me be clear that I, in no way, support the disruption of anyone’s speech, and I believe that progressive student organizations should avoid the temptation to lash out in the face of provocation. But what’s most important is that all political conversations are substantive — when we do discuss issues like freedom of speech, we must also consider them in the context of movements such as Black Lives Matter, which has seen massive suppression at the hands of state actors.
From police officers driving into protesters in New York City to masked Department of Homeland Security agents arresting protesters without proper due process, protesters and organizers for Black Lives Matter have systematically had their civil liberties violated, all while groups like our campus’ chapter of TPUSA have declared “It’s time for leftist thugs to pay.” Rather than getting bogged down in petty arguments with conservative groups, leftists and those who claim to truly support “free speech” must stand in solidarity with movements like Black Lives Matter, which have actually seen their free speech rights violated — only then do we actually defend the speaking rights of all people.
Colin Mangan is an undeclared sophomore.