Binghamton Social Work Case Gets National Attention, Student Government Support

By on November 14, 2008

The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) and The Volokh Conspiracy both have reported on the case of Binghamton University Department of Social Work master’s student Andre Massena, who was suspended for one year with no guarantee of return, required to apologize, required to disavow his own views, and required to make every effort to get others to stop complaining to the department after he put up posters that embarrassed his department. The posters challenged the department for having hired the executive director of the Binghamton Housing Authority, an agency Massena thought was responsible for social injustice. Massena remains in school pending an appeal scheduled for this afternoon. In response to Massena’s appeal, the chair of the department, Professor Laura Bronstein, submitted roughly 50 pages of materials including many new allegations and a recommendation that Massena be expelled.

Following FIRE’s press release on the case, Robin Wilson of the Chronicle asked Gail Glover, a spokeswoman at Binghamton, about the case. Glover verified that the worst of the department’s recommendations had been overturned by the first appeals panel. Wilson also noted that “[s]chools of social work—including one at Missouri State University—have been criticized for requiring students to lobby for causes they do not support and then penalizing them if they refuse (The Chronicle, April 20, 2007).” The case of Missouri State social work student Emily Brooker is worth reading about in its own right, for the university actually solicited an independent investigation of the School of Social Work that strongly criticized the school for its culture of repression and its “atmosphere where the [social work] Code of Ethics is used in order to coerce students into certain belief systems regarding social work practice.”

For his part, writing for The Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh states: “the report’s orders to Massena suggest that SUNY [SUNY-Binghamton, also known as Binghamton University] was indeed complaining about the content of the criticism (‘Mr. Massena will make every effort possible and will inform Profs. Bronstein and Wiener of his efforts 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’) and the effects of that content, rather than some unspecified other misbehavior. Seems to me like a clear violation of the First Amendment and of student academic freedom principles.” We agree.

Finally, I should point out that the same day on which FIRE wrote to Binghamton University President Lois DeFleur, October 29, the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) of Binghamton University also sent President DeFleur a unanimous letter supporting Massena. The GSO wrote:

We condemn the disciplinary measures undertaken against Mr. Massena. All available evidence indicates that this case is not about a violation of the Student Code of Conduct concerning the guidelines for posting fliers at Binghamton University. We believe, rather, that Mr. Massena’s dismissal is a result of issues centered around political disagreements.

The real contention is that Mr. Massena posted fliers around the Binghamton campus and community protesting what he calls unethical activities regarding the practices of the Binghamton Housing Authority (BHA)… We strongly feel that Mr. Massena’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression has been violated solely on the basis of a political disagreement… We respect Mr. Massena’s right to freedom of conscience.

We appeal to the administrators of Binghamton University to bring a halt to this unfair and legally unjustified process against Mr. Massena. We urgently request you to ensure that the social environment of this university is one in which the civil rights and civil liberties of students and scholars across the political and ideological spectrum are guaranteed.

I wish that student governments around the country would take as active an interest in student rights as has the GSO at Binghamton University.

Schools: Missouri State University Binghamton University, State University of New York