Ed Dept probe into free speech at public college a warning sign

Table of Contents

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether the free speech practices of Binghamton University, a public institution in New York, violate federal law and regulation. 
  • The probe stems from incidents last year concerning conservative student groups, in which protesters trashed tables displaying promotional and political materials, and drowned out a speaker whom one of the organizations invited to campus. 
  • The White House has taken a special interest in campus free speech, and civil liberties experts say institutions should expect similar inquiries to emerge. 

Dive Insight:

Last year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order tying public and private colleges’ federal research dollars to protecting campus free expression. The administration issued a similar rule this year meant to bolster religious freedom and free inquiry. Both measures were criticized as being redundant to existing law and difficult to enforce.

The probe of Binghamton is at least the third such the department has opened into postsecondary institutions this year. It follows similar ones into the University of California, Los Angeles, and Fordham University, a New York private school. 

Institutions should expect more department scrutiny when the religious and free speech regulation takes effect, said Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties watchdog in higher ed. 

Right now, the department is taking “slam dunk” cases, meaning those with clear free inquiry violations, Cohn said. Targeting “egregious” censorship could serve the public well, he said, adding that the department may lose goodwill if the investigations become partisan. 

Binghamton spokesperson Ryan Yarosh wrote in an email that the institution “will respond to the investigation accordingly,” noting that it is committed to free speech and it has met First Amendment obligations and those within federal law. 

The department’s inquiry relates to episodes in November 2019 involving the university’s College Republicans chapter and Turning Point USA, a conservative group unaffiliated with the campus. 

The university said the two conservative groups didn’t secure permission to table outside its union, and refused to move when staff members approached them. Some students, offended by a display the university said featured “provocative” imagery that included guns, then tore apart the display. Campus police eventually escorted the groups away to maintain safety. It later suspended the College Republicans as a student group for not seeking approval to table.

A few days later, the institution halted a lecture by controversial economist Arthur Laffer, whom the College Republicans asked to speak but some attendees shouted down.

The department said the university did little to maintain order at the talk and questioned whether its actions were a result of “political bias” and hostility against conservatives and aligned groups. 

It said Binghamton may be misleading students and families about their free speech policies. The agency has asked for records concerning the incidents, as well as disciplinary actions the university may have taken against students in connection to them.

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