By Tommy Gagliano and Harold Rook
On September 15th, 2020, the United States Department of Education published a letter informing Binghamton University and President Harvey Stenger that a federal investigation into the University had been launched. The notice states that there “seems to be evidence suggesting Binghamton 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 College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom/Young America’s Foundation.” The purpose of the investigation is to determine whether or not the conduct of the university “violated applicable statutory, regulatory, and/or contractual provisions,” and whether or not Binghamton misled students, parents, and consumers with their promises to protect First Amendment rights. Ultimately, the investigation is to decide if Binghamton University operates under a policy that selectively enforces the right to freedom of speech for its students.
The investigation is focused on events that occurred on Binghamton University’s campus between November 14th and November 19th, 2019. At around 10 AM on November 14th, College Republicans and the Binghamton chapter of Turning Point USA set up tables next to each other on the “Spine” (a central walkway on campus). TPUSA President Lacey Kestecher and then-College Republicans President John Restuccia explained to us when we first covered the incident that the two groups planned to “table” next to each other, but to do so for different purposes. College Republicans handed out hot chocolate and fliers to promote their upcoming “Trump, Tariffs, Trade Wars” event featuring Dr. Arthur Laffer, while TPUSA set up a variety of posters and buttons to promote their organization. Things were calm at first, with discussions between tablets and passing students being relatively cordial. However, at 2 p.m. tensions began to rise as large groups of students approached the tabling groups, becoming more and more aggressive. Within a span of 20 minutes, a mob of 200 or more students formed, yelling obscenities, stealing promotional materials, damaging property, and attempting to intimidate the members of College Republicans and Turning Point USA.
The letter from the Department of Education claims that protesters may have been acting “pursuant to a conspiracy” to “injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate the College Republicans in the free exercise or enjoyment of their First Amendment rights” on November 14th. They cite GroupMe messages sent to massive student group chats that Binghamton Review obtained and published to support this, mischaracterizing the messages as “social media messages,” likely due to their source, New York Post, making the same mischaracterization. The messages, such as “yeah there’s not that many but fuck em [sic] up anyways,” were designed to incite harassment and violence, and were sent to a Hinman group chat of over 400 students, a group chat called “The Culture” which contains over 1500 students, and possibly more Binghamton groups. It is no coincidence that the mob got as large as it did, as quickly as it did. The letter also claims that University police did little to shut down the mob or prevent harassment of club members. This, the Department of Education surmises, amounts to what could legally be considered conspiracy by the University to threaten and intimidate the students involved in tabling.
On November 18th, 2019, Dr. Arthur Laffer was scheduled to give his talk on economics—the same one that College Republicans was promoting on the 14th. Earlier that day, Vice President Brian Rose issued a statement about the November 14th events that the Department of Education claims “blam[ed] College Republicans,” and “never mentioned the First Amendment.” Rose also claims that groups were attempting to be “provocative” with gun-imagery on the day of the Santa Clarita school shooting. The shooting only happened 30 minutes before the two groups set up, and both groups had no knowledge of the incident. Also prior to Dr. Laffer’s scheduled lecture time that day, Binghamton University’s College Progressives shared images on social media, asking people to “show up, speak out, and disrupt” the event, and mentioned that PLOT (Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow) was behind the protest. Additionally, College Progressive falsely claimed that TPUSA was the party responsible for setting up the Laffer event. TPUSA was not involved in the Art Laffer speaking event. Binghamton Review published screenshots of Instagram posts from the club during our initial coverage of the incident.
Interestingly, it was known in advance by College Republicans, YAF, and the Binghamton administration that leftist groups planned to disrupt the event. To placate this, YAF hired a security firm to provide Dr. Laffer with protection, should the event devolve into chaos. Moreover, the general counsel for YAF, Mark Trammell, attempted to contact Binghamton University’s Attorney, Barbara Scarlett, with the goal of gaining assurances that the University would protect their client’s right to freedom of speech, in conjunction with the school’s written policy. No such assurance was ever given by Scarlett. Additionally, the University Police Department (UPD) was made aware of the plans by these campus groups to disrupt the event. However, the UPD moved the lecture to a different location to provide a quicker exit route for Dr. Laffer, while also providing an adjacent lecture hall for the protestors, much to the displeasure of the College Republicans and YAF. Following these conditions, College Republicans leveled that such accommodations would only serve to allow these protestors to organize and disrupt the event, and requested that the University release a statement urging the protection of Dr. Laffer’s free speech and remove the accommodations. The University refused. The UPD even went so far as to tell Dr. Laffer to have his own event canceled in fear that the disruption would take place. Dr. Laffer decided to continue on with the event.
A plethora of students arrived well before the event’s 7:30 start time, filling the room as soon as the doors opened. Many attendees were wearing black face masks (before COVID made them normal), red armbands, and/or PLOT sweatshirts. At 7:30, John Restuccia took the mic to introduce Dr. Laffer, who was able to get through two and a half sentences before being interrupted by a protester. The protester was then brought a megaphone, which he used to continue yelling at Dr. Laffer. The situation escalated, with a vast majority of the individuals in the room joining the protest, and Dr. Laffer was escorted out of the room through the Lecture Hall basement. According to the Department of Education, “instead of making a good faith effort to restore order and allow the lecture to continue, university police ordered Dr. Laffer’s removal…” The Department of Education letter provides a link to footage recorded by Binghamton Review staff and uploaded to the Binghamton Review YouTube channel to show an accurate portrayal of the night’s events. What ended up happening was a foregone conclusion: the talk was completely shut down, and protestors took the time to air what they felt were grievances against them outside the lecture hall that they just stormed.
The claims being investigated rely not on the actions of students, but on the way the University responded to those actions. Vice President Rose’s statement on the 18th, UPD’s failure to act in either situation, and the administration’s failure to put protections in place for Dr. Laffer’s lecture despite having knowledge that a protest was planned are among the most important indictments against Binghamton University. The Department of Education also notes that no students involved with organizing the disruptions or the college organizations responsible for facilitating the protest faced any form of official punishment. On the contrary, College Republicans were the group the University targeted for disciplinary action, having their club suspended for not obtaining permission to table on the Spine.
This investigation comes just two months after a lawsuit was filed against BU. On July 21st, 2020, Young America’s Foundation (YAF), Binghamton University College Republicans, and College Republicans President Jon Lizak filed a federal lawsuit against Binghamton University and three of its administrators, College Progressives, and PLOT, over the alleged targeting of conservative groups and failure by the University to protect the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of students. Binghamton Review has previously covered the allegations made within the lawsuit, which is discussed in greater detail on the Binghamton Review website. In short, the lawsuit claims that Binghamton University, College Progressives, and PLOT engaged in what amounts to conspiracy to shut down specific political viewpoints, in compliance with the Speech Suppression Policy. This, YAF argues, makes Binghamton University a guilty actor in the events that followed, essentially permitting such actions to occur without any recourse.
The letter opines that the motives behind the actions taken by the administration are not entirely clear. Whether the actions demonstrated by the University were a result of clear political bias, administrative incompetence in handling political pressure, or an indifference to enforcing written procedure is unknown. To the Department of Education, it makes no difference; the lack of taking clear, decisive action to protect students’ freedom of speech is indicative of misleading the public on the University’s commitment to the First Amendment. The resultant investigation that will take place in spite of the current COVID pandemic. If the Department of Education finds enough reason to believe that Binghamton has violated its commitment to ideals of free speech, the administration may be required to undergo proceedings to discuss their actions. Regardless, the investigation will present a challenge for the University, and the implications that this battle will have on free speech for college students could be enormous.