Binghamton University Department of Social Work Declares War on Student for Posters Criticizing Department and Government Agency

November 13, 2008

Today’s press release paints a very disturbing picture of Binghamton University’s Department of Social Work. The department ordered the suspension of a master’s student for one year with no guarantee of return, required him to apologize, and demanded that he publicly disavow his own views after he put up posters challenging the department for having hired the executive director of the Binghamton Housing Authority (BHA)an agency the student thought was responsible for social injustice. Student Andre Massena remains in school pending an appeal, which is to be heard tomorrow afternoon.

On August 25, 2008, Massena 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 anonymity after hearing stories from other students in the department about students being unjustly “advanced” (expelled) from the program. When interrogated about the posters, Massena exercised his right to anonymous speech by declining to acknowledge authorshipa decision ultimately cited as the official reason for Massena’s punishment.

One week later, Massena received a “Written Plan” from his department. It failed to specify any alleged violations, but nevertheless assigned him shockingly onerous and unconstitutional requirements to complete in order to continue his master’s program. Massena was required 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 Professors Laura Bronstein and Diane Wiener, and to complete a critical reflection paper of ten to twelve pages on the topic of ethics in social work.

Yet even these humiliating, disproportionate, and inappropriate punishments were not sufficient for the Department of Social Work. Massena also was required 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. The department was demanding no less than abject groveling from one of its own students.

Massena immediately appealed his punishment to an appeals committee within the department. On September 23, the committee notified Massena that it had upheld the suspension (with no guarantee of return) and the required paper. The other requirements apparently were waived. The committee persisted in failing to name any specific charges against Massena, stating only that the hearing concerned Massena’s “readiness for advancement in the social work program.”

Massena appealed once more, this time to the College of Community and Public Affairs Ethics and Integrity Committee, only to find that he would be facing a series of brand-new allegations. According to policy, Massena’s appeal had to be in the form of a grievance against Professor Bronstein, Chair of the Department of Social Work. In an attempt to bolster her department’s case, Bronstein submitted roughly 50 pages of materials and entirely new allegations on October 21, 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. Since the department had continued to violate Massena’s due process rights, giving him just days to prepare his response to Bronstein’s new charges, the appeal was postponed until tomorrow.

The letter he received from the College of Community and Public Affairs Ethics and Integrity Committee finally told him that his charges were “that you lied to University police on two separate occasions concerning your role in the distribution of certain flyers that were posted at the University Downtown Center in violation of University posting procedures.” But it is unclear whether Massena violated any such procedures in the first place. Massena has been investigated separately through the university’s judicial system for that, and there has not even been a hearing or any statement of charges yet. Besides, according to Brian Rose, Vice President of Student Affairs, the maximum penalty Massena could be facing through the normal judicial process is a letter of admonition. That fact alone signals that the Department of Social Work has made the bizarre choice to pursue a vendetta against a student whose opinions it finds inconvenient and unwanted.

Meanwhile, it looks like the same thing is happening with a grade dispute Massena is facing, but that’s another story. FIRE almost never intervenes in grade disputes, but when a department goes to war against a student in such a severe way, we are willing to take a closer look.

FIRE wrote 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. We insisted that the school acknowledge Massena’s First Amendment 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.

Given the Department of Social Work’s extreme and shocking overreaction to Massena’s protected speech and its aggressive attempts to find any available rationale to punish the student, it is clearly trying to send the message that students dissent at their peril. In this atmosphere of repression, no reasonable person should be required or expected to admit to criticizing the department.

I encourage readers to look through the documents linked above. They paint such a disturbing picture of Binghamton University’s Department of Social Work that I am reminded of the case of social work student Emily Brooker at Missouri State University. Missouri State University quickly settled a freedom of conscience lawsuit in response to an incident in which Brooker was interrogated for two and a half hours by faculty members who attacked her religious beliefs and threatened to withhold her degree. As part of the settlement, the university paid Brooker’s attorneys’ fees and waived her tuition for graduate school. Missouri State then solicited an independent investigation of the School of Social Work. That investigation found:

Many students and faculty stated a fear of voicing differing opinions from the instructor or colleague. This was particularly true regarding spiritual and religious matters however, [sic] students voiced fears about questioning faculty regarding assignments or expectations. In fact “bullying” was used by both students and faculty to characterize specific faculty. It appears that faculty have no history of intellectual discussion/debate. Rather, differing opinions are taken personally and often result in inappropriate discourse…

There is an atmosphere where the Code of Ethics is used in order to coerce students into certain belief systems regarding social work practice and the social work profession. This represents a distorted use of the Social Work Code of Ethics in that the Code of Ethics articulates that social workers should respect the values and beliefs of others.

Sound familiar? It may well be time for an independent investigation of the Department of Social Work at Binghamton University.

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

Cases:  Binghamton University: Student Suspended for Posters Criticizing Department of Social Work and Government Agency Missouri State University: Political Litmus Test in School of Social Work