Students at public universities have a right to peacefully express their beliefs, even if those beliefs differ from those of university officials. But officials at the State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY Binghamton) sided with a mob and helped them shut down a speech organized by a conservative student group. This clear violation of the Constitution cannot be allowed on public campuses.
What is Young America’s Foundation?
Young America’s Foundation (YAF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public on conservative ideas including individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values. YAF hosts conferences, seminars, and speakers to teach people about these ideas.
YAF often partners with student organizations that share its values to co-host speakers on campuses across the country. These events help further YAF’s broad mission of informing and educating the public.
In November 2019, YAF and College Republicans at SUNY Binghamton planned to co-host a lecture by Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and world-renowned economist Dr. Art Laffer. A few days before the lecture was to take place, members of College Republicans set up a table on campus to advertise the event.
After about three hours, a mob of students from the College Progressives confronted the College Republicans about Dr. Laffer’s upcoming lecture. They also sent messages to group chatrooms claiming that College Republicans was advocating “racism, homophobia, and xenophobia” and encouraged others to come “disrupt” the table where members of the College Republicans were peacefully advertising their event.
A mob of about 200 people soon attacked the College Republicans’ table, destroyed flyers and posters advertising the event, broke down and stole the table, and screamed obscenities at members of College Republicans. The mob even physically assaulted one member and yanked away her “Make America Great Again” hat.
When university police arrived, they did not stop the verbal and physical harassment by members of the College Progressives. Instead, they forced College Republicans to leave the area as College Progressives members chanted, “Pack it up!” After the attack, the SUNY Binghamton vice president of student affairs blamed members of the College Republicans instead of decrying the harassment by the College Progressives, and the university president issued a statement supporting the university police’s actions.
Despite this incident, YAF took steps to ensure that the lecture by Dr. Laffer that they were co-hosting with the College Republicans went on as planned. YAF hired two agents from a private security firm to protect Dr. Laffer, and the group’s general counsel contacted SUNY Binghamton’s campus attorney to ensure the university would take the necessary actions to allow the event to proceed. He asked the university to pledge that if protesters entered the lecture room, university police would remove them and not Dr. Laffer. But the university refused to promise this basic protection.
At a meeting on the day of the event, university police told YAF and the College Republicans that they were moving the event to a different lecture hall so they could easily remove Dr. Laffer if they chose to. In addition, university police announced that they would facilitate the College Progressives’ efforts to disrupt the event by giving them the lecture hall right next to the one where Dr. Laffer was going to speak. The two lecture halls even had connecting doors. College Republicans strongly objected to both of these conditions, but university police refused to budge.
About an hour before the event began, hundreds of College Progressives members and their co-conspirators lined up outside the lecture hall. When the doors opened, they stormed into the room and blocked others from taking open seats. Many of them were wearing masks to conceal their identities, which directly violates New York law.
University police made one announcement about the fire code and asked everyone to sit down at the request of the College Republicans and YAF, but the mob refused to listen. Even though university police had 43 sworn law enforcement officers on the force, they failed to take any further action.
Just seconds after Dr. Laffer started speaking, a member of the mob began shouting him down and hurling verbal attacks at him. The disrupting student was handed a megaphone and urged to continue, and when university police finally tried to remove him after nearly two minutes of shouting, members of the mob formed a barrier around him.
After more protesters flooded into the room, university police told the two private security agents to remove Dr. Laffer from the lecture hall. Since their job was to protect Dr. Laffer, they complied and eventually escorted him to his car to leave the campus.
The First Amendment protects people of all beliefs, and it ensures both YAF members and Dr. Laffer the right to peacefully share their beliefs without fear of being physically assaulted or relentlessly antagonized. By encouraging and aiding the hostile mob seeking to silence Dr. Laffer, SUNY Binghamton’s president, vice president of student affairs, and university police all failed to properly protect Dr. Laffer and his rights.
ADF filed a lawsuit against the university officials who assisted in shutting down free speech instead of removing the mob that was disrupting the lecture.
What’s at stake?
Even though SUNY Binghamton knew in advance that disruptions were planned during Dr. Art Laffer’s speech, it did nothing to stop them. In fact, it actively facilitated the planned disruptions by the College Progressives and their co-conspirators.
By removing Dr. Laffer instead of the disruptive mob, as was its plan from the beginning, the university violated the constitutional rights of YAF, the College Republicans, and Dr. Laffer himself. A ruling in favor of YAF and the College Republicans would ensure that public universities cannot pick and choose which students get to speak freely on campus.
- November 2019: SUNY Binghamton officials facilitated the disruption of a speech by Dr. Art Laffer.
- June 2020: ADF filed a lawsuit against the SUNY Binghamton officials who shut down free speech.
The bottom line
Universities should encourage free speech, not shut it down. All students should be able to exercise their constitutionally protected freedom to peacefully share their views with others.