It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green—

September 23, 2005

But it should be. All it takes for a university to earn a “green light” rating from FIRE is for the university not to maintain any policies that violate the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty. Sadly, however, few schools have a green light rating. One school, SUNY Binghamton, is so close to a green light that FIRE wants to take this opportunity to draw attention to its policies in the hopes that it will decide to fully honor its own stated commitments to freedom of speech by upholding the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty.

SUNY Binghamton makes several very clear commitments to freedom of speech, in such unequivocal terms that it is clear the university understands the constitutional obligations it has as a public institution. The Introduction to the Rules of Student Conduct states that “students at all public universities, including Binghamton, have all the rights and protection guarantees afforded by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and have the same responsibilities held by all citizens.” Moreover, The Report of the President’s Commission on Free Speech and Academic Freedom contains some very explicit and thorough commitments to freedom of speech. The Report states that “One of the fundamental rights secured by the First Amendment for students at state colleges and universities is that of free, uncensored expression, even on matters some may think are trivial, vulgar, or profane. Neither does the First Amendment recognize exceptions for bigotry, racism, and religious intolerance, or other offensive expression. Nor may it hinder the exercise of students’ First Amendment rights simply because it feels that exposure to some student groups’ ideas may be somehow harmful to certain other students.” In her introduction to the Report, SUNY Binghamton President Lois DeFleur states that “public universities [are] held to a special standard under the First Amendment” and affirms the university’s commitment to free and open expression.

These firm commitments to free speech are laudable. Unfortunately, however, SUNY Binghamton maintains a harassment policy that does not live up to the university’s own commitments to the free speech rights of its community members. That policy provides that “communicating or causing communication to be initiated by…any mechanical, electronic or written communication in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm is prohibited.” This policy is unconstitutionally overbroad. As the university itself has explicitly recognized, the state cannot prohibit speech simply because it causes annoyance or alarm. Rather, to constitute harassment, the speech must be so severe, pervasive or persistent that it unreasonably interferes with an individual’s opportunity to obtain an education or that it creates a hostile work or educational environment. SUNY Binghamton knows this—it has adopted the EEOC’s definition of harassment in its sexual harassment policy and has acknowledged its obligation, as a public university, to fully respect the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty. SUNY Binghamton is very close to being a “green light” university, and FIRE would love to be able to turn it over to “green light” status since it seems so committed to the First Amendment rights of its community members. So long as this unconstitutional policy is in place, however, we cannot do so.

FIRE hopes that SUNY Binghamton will honor the commitments to free speech it has so publicly made and abolish or revise this unconstitutional policy, leading the way for universities to see that it’s not so hard bein’ green after all.

Schools:  Binghamton University, State University of New York