Binghamton, NY — After calling students’ expressive activities “a violation of the law and of the student handbook,” State University of New York at Binghamton campus police surveilled students’ literature distribution, threatened to prosecute them for posting flyers indoors, and told them they would be held responsible if other students littered their flyers. Today, FIRE calls on Binghamton University to drop its investigation and commit to ensuring its campus police respect students’ First Amendment rights.
“By surveilling students’ expressive activity and warning them that they would be held accountable for their peers’ behavior, campus police implied that students were engaging in prohibited conduct and could face punishment for doing so,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Sarah McLaughlin. “Unless the university reverses course, Binghamton University risks chilling the speech of not just the students distributing flyers, but the entire student body.”
On March 28, a group of students posted approximately 200 flyers in Binghamton University’s Downtown Center. The flyers criticized the university’s response to recent incidents of perceived racist expression on campus. After about an hour, a campus police officer stopped student Dominic Davy and questioned him about the flyers, warning him that he had broken state law. Binghamton University Investigator Patrick Reilly reaffirmed the officer’s comments to the student newspaper, The Pipe Dream, claiming that the flyers constituted “a violation of the law and of the student handbook” and that an investigation was ongoing.
After being warned that they could not continue posting flyers indoors, the students began distributing flyers directly outside the Downtown Center. Shortly after, the same campus police officer stopped the students, explaining that “people came to [him] and were offended by” their flyers. He went on to say that although he “respect[s]” their point of view, when “it alarms other people then [he has] to interject and [he has] to do something about it.”
The officer also warned the students that they would be asked to stop distributing flyers if their recipients littered them. The officer informed them, “If you’re handing them out and people go in [the Downtown Center] and [start] throwing them on the ground,” he would tell them to stop “because it’s gonna come back to you.”
One student asked the officer why they would be held accountable for other people littering. The officer replied, “It’s because it’s being generated by you guys. . . . They would not be doing that if you guys didn’t generate the papers.”
The students were interrupted by campus police twice that day while distributing flyers outdoors, and once the next day.
FIRE wrote to Binghamton University President Harvey G. Stenger on April 18, asking the university to end its investigation immediately and ensure that campus police officers receive proper training on students’ right to distribute expressive materials on campus. Binghamton University failed to respond to FIRE’s letter.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.