BINGHAMTON, N.Y., November 13, 2008—Binghamton University’s Department of Social Work 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, who remains in school pending an appeal, has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"This is an appallingly transparent attempt by Binghamton University’s Department of Social Work to punish Massena for protected speech," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "We can only hope that university leadership will act quickly to rein in this incredibly irresponsible department."
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 authorship-a 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.
"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 abject groveling from one of its own students."
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."
Massena immediately appealed his punishment to an appeals committee. 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 charges-charges that still had not been specifically or consistently stated. The appeal was postponed and will be heard tomorrow.
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. 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.
"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," Kissel said. "In this atmosphere of repression, no reasonable person should be required or expected to admit to criticizing the department."
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 thefire.org.
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Lois B. DeFleur, President, Binghamton University: 607-777-2131; email@example.com
Laura Bronstein, Chair, Department of Social Work, Binghamton University: 607-777-9162; firstname.lastname@example.org