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Speech Code of the Month: SUNY Binghamton

FIRE announces our Speech Code of the Month for March 2018: the State University of New York at Binghamton.

Universities around the country have been struggling to deal with the cost of hosting speakers whose appearance may result in violent, disruptive protests on campus. Unfortunately, some universities’ answer is to impose what amounts to a viewpoint tax on controversial speech, requiring student organizations to pay additional — sometimes prohibitive — fees to host controversial speakers on campus. This gives those who are opposed to a speaker a “heckler’s veto,” allowing them to control the terms of debate on campus by threatening disruption that prices student groups out of bringing certain speakers to campus. At public universities, policies that levy additional security fees on groups hosting controversial speakers are unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

SUNY Binghamton, a public university, has one of those “viewpoint tax” policies. Binghamton maintains a set of “Guidelines for Sponsoring Campus Events that Require Extra-Ordinary Security Arrangements” that apply to “events which tend to generate a great deal of controversy within the community.” The term “controversy” is not defined.

According to those guidelines, a student organization hosting a controversial speaker must meet with university police at least ten days in advance to discuss security, and “[t]he sponsor will assume the cost of officers, and any special equipment determined by the University Police that is necessary to assist with the event including outside police agencies if required.”

In other words, the more opposition your group’s speaker is likely to encounter, the more you have to pay: a classic — and plainly unconstitutional — heckler’s veto. As the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear, “[l]isteners’ reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation. … Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123, 134-35 (1992).

For this reason, SUNY Binghamton is our March 2018 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining the FIRE Student Network, a coalition of college students and faculty members dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

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