Victory for Freedom of Speech at Binghamton University Department of Social Work

By November 17, 2008

BINGHAMTON, N.Y., November 17, 2008Binghamton University (formerly SUNYBinghamton) has abandoned its attempt to suspend or expel a student who put up posters challenging the Department of Social Work. The department had ordered that social work master’s student Andre Massena leave the program for one year with no guarantee of return, required him to apologize, and demanded that he publicly disavow his own views after his pseudonymous posters challenged the department for having hired the executive director of the Binghamton Housing Authority (BHA)an agency Massena thought was responsible for social injustice. When Massena appealed, the department’s chair added entirely new allegations and recommended his expulsion. The department dropped the charges late Friday, one day after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) took the case public.

“Andre Massena’s case may be over, but Binghamton University’s Department of Social Work has a long way to go to restore its reputation,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “We hope that university leadership will act quickly to rein in this irresponsible department.”

On November 14, shortly after his appellate hearing with the College of Community and Public Affairs Ethics and Integrity Committee, Massena received a one-sentence e-mail from Department of Social Work Chair Laura Bronstein: “Due to procedural misunderstandings, the case pertaining to you is no longer being pursued.”

Massena’s case began shortly after August 25, 2008, when he put up posters on campus claiming that a woman and her children had been unjustly evicted from their home by the BHA. Under the pseudonym “JUSTICESPEAKS,” the poster called the BHA “inhumane” and noted that its executive director, David K. Tanenhaus, is an adjunct professor at the school’s Department of Social Work. The poster encouraged readers to call the department “to let them know what you think.”

Massena chose pseudonymity after hearing stories from other students in the department about students being unjustly “advanced” (expelled) from the program. When interrogated about the posters, he declined to acknowledge authorshipa decision ultimately cited as the official reason for Massena’s punishment. According to Massena, he was charged with “lying by omission,” having chosen not to tell a security officer that he was putting up the posters.

One week later, however, Massena received a “Written Plan” from his department that failed to specify any alleged violations but required him to leave the university for two semesters, with his return contingent on “departmental approval.” He also was required to present a formal statement to university and governmental officials retracting his opinions, to submit formal apologies to a pre-approved list of people as evaluated by Bronstein and Professor Diane Wiener, to complete a critical reflection paper of ten to twelve pages on the topic of ethics in social work, and to actively discourage others from similar activism by making “every effort possible…to end the process whereby students, service providers and community members approach the Dept. of Social Work in an effort to alleviate ‘wrong’ they may see as occurring at the Binghamton Housing Authority.”

“These outrageous requirements focused on the content and the embarrassing effects of the posters, not on Massena’s alleged failure to identify himself as author of the posters,” Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said. “The department was demanding no less than groveling from a student, clearly sending the message that students dissent at great peril.”

Massena immediately appealed his punishment, but he was put through an unjust and confusing process. In his first appeals hearing he was able to defeat some of the onerous requirements of the “Written Plan.” But in appealing the remaining punishments, he found himself facing a series of brand-new allegations when, in an attempt to bolster her department’s case, Bronstein submitted 51 pages of new materials, concluding that she now believed Massena should be expelled.

Even other Binghamton University officials found Bronstein’s response ridiculous and ordered that the hearing’s scope be reduced to something close to the original chargescharges that still had not been specifically or consistently stated. Massena attended his hearing on November 14, and he received Bronstein’s response dropping the charges due to “procedural misunderstandings” just hours later.

“What kind of ‘procedural misunderstandings’ is Bronstein referring to?” Kissel asked. “Does she mean that her department has finally realized that students in her department actually have First Amendment and due process rights? We certainly hope so.”

FIRE had written Binghamton University President Lois B. DeFleur on October 29 about the numerous, serious violations of Massena’s rights to freedom of expression, pseudonymous speech, due process, and freedom of conscience. FIRE insisted that the school acknowledge Massena’s right to freely criticize public officials, public entities such as the BHA, and even Binghamton University itself without punishment or roundabout allegations intended to punish Massena by other means. DeFleur so far has not directly responded.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws.

CONTACT:
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; adam@www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws
Lois B. DeFleur, President, Binghamton University: 607-777-2131; ldefleur@binghamton.edu
Laura Bronstein, Chair, Department of Social Work, Binghamton University: 607-777-9162; lbronst@binghamton.edu

Schools: Binghamton University, State University of New York Cases: Binghamton University: Student Suspended for Posters Criticizing Department of Social Work and Government Agency