Today, for the third year in a row, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, took out a full-page ad in the college rankings edition of U.S. News & World Report to highlight abuses of free speech on campus. This year, the ad focuses on the outrageous case of Andre Massena at SUNY Binghamton. We also prepared a short video about his case:
While the complete details of Massena’s case would be enough for a full-length documentary or a feature article, a quick summary of the case goes like this: Andre Massena, a Haitian immigrant, was studying for his master’s degree in social work at SUNY Binghamton (now known simply as Binghamton University). He discovered that his very own department had hired as an adjunct professor the executive director of the Binghamton Housing Authority (BHA). Massena believed that the BHA engaged in "inhumane" practices, including expelling needy families from public housing. He was outraged, so he prepared posters to let the community know that, in his opinion, the Department of Social Work was betraying its commitment to "social justice."
When the university found out that Massena was responsible for the posters, they let him have it. He was immediately suspended for two semesters and was handed a remediation plan that required him to more or less grovel in order to be readmitted to the program. He had to apologize, promise to help prevent other students from criticizing the department in the same way, and essentially recant everything he had said. And even if he completed this assignment (and more), there was no guarantee that he would be accepted back into the program. Then, when Massena appealed, the department chair took advantage of the opportunity to hit him with an entirely new litany of charges, and recommended he be expelled.
In this age of campus obsession with sensitivity above all else, some of you might think that criticizing a university professor could rightfully land a student in hot water. But colleges and universities must not insulate themselves from serious controversy, hurt feelings, or all the normal abrasions of the serious business of education. Here, a student was exercising his First Amendment right to criticize the university’s decision to hire a professor he believed had played a role in kicking poor people out of their homes. For that he was suspended, assigned to confess his sin against the university and to repudiate his deepest belief in justice, and faced with what seemed like an inevitable expulsion. All of this was not only morally wrong but shockingly unconstitutional behavior by the Department of Social Work.
Thankfully, after FIRE became involved and we took the case public, SUNY Binghamton backed down. I am very proud to say that under our watch, Massena graduated with a master’s degree in social work in 2009. If you’d like to learn more about this remarkable case, I recommend that you check out all the details here.
But justice doesn’t always prevail. For over a decade now, a combination of letters, publicity campaigns, and lawsuits has led to success in the vast majority of cases in which we defend the free speech rights of students and faculty members, but some schools never back down. It is important for the public to know about those schools that flatly and unrepentantly violate the free speech protections every student and faculty member should be able to take for granted, so we publicize our "Red Alert" list every year. The Red Alert list is a "worst of the worst" list of schools that not only violated the principles of freedom of speech against their own students or faculty members, but also refused to back down despite the glare of public scrutiny. These schools include Bucknell University, Brandeis University, Colorado College, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Tufts University.
You can follow the links to find out what each school did to end up on the list. Prospective students, their parents, and alumni aren’t the only ones who should be watching to ensure that our nation’s universities respect free speech and academic freedom.
Meanwhile, the leadership of several of these colleges has changed or will be changing in 2010-2011. Let’s hope the new presidents will be hospitable to free speech so that we can happily announce a shorter Red Alert list next year.