While white supremacist propaganda is on the rise at colleges in the U.S., the campus police at the State University of New York at Binghamton allegedly threatened a student with arrest for hanging anti-racist flyers on campus.
On March 28, police stopped a group of students for posting flyers that questioned the university's commitment to diversity. (You can see them here.) Several students told Pipe Dream, the campus newspaper, that an officer with Binghamton's State University Police Department told one of the students hanging the posters they could be arrested.
The flyers were in response to hideously racist drawings found around campus, a homophobic article published by the school's conservative publication the Binghamton Review, along with a campus culture that many say excludes students of color. They criticized the administration for inadequately responding to racist incidents.
The day after the police incident, students held a demonstration to support those who were hanging the flyers and educate the community about racism and discrimination.
"When I heard about the fact that certain students and members of the human development department were threatened with arrest yesterday, I was appalled, but not surprised," Raaga Rajagopala, a senior who helped hand out the flyers, told Pipe Dream. "Binghamton University has a history of silencing voices that want to challenge their perceptions of racism and discrimination on this campus, so if I can help students bring awareness to this issue, it’s my duty to be here."
Earlier this month, university president Harvey Stenger issued a statement enumerating the various campus programs addressing racism and discrimination and pledged the administration's commitment "to making this campus a welcoming and inclusive place."
Investigator Patrick Reilly of the campus police told Pipe Dream the flyers violated university policy and New York state laws about unlawful posting.
"University rules say that you cannot post in certain places, so they were in violation of university rules of posting," Reilly said. "There’s certain places you can post stuff, but when you post over 200 flyers to get your word across and they are all over the bathrooms and in the hallways, then you violate laws for unlawful posting. One individual was talked to, and it was explained that whatever he was trying to put out, whatever his message is, that’s not our concern. What we care about is that they are posting all over the place, and that’s a violation of the law and of the student handbook."
But students said they didn't break state law because the penal code only applies to advertisements, which these were not. A source also told the student newspaper that police continued to follow the students after they had stopped hanging the flyers and started handing them out instead, which the students felt was excessive. While reportedly someone was "offended" by the postings, students told Pipe Dream that none of the flyers were a threat to anyone's safety.
Ryan Yarosh, the university's senior director of media and public relations, told Refinery29 that Pipe Dream had erroneously reported that police said they would be investigating the incident.
"There is no investigation and no charges," he said in an interview. "The university does not intend to pursue charges."
In an email, he wrote: "The free exchange of information and ideas opens a dialogue and the tradition at Binghamton, a public university, is that the full exercise of first amendment rights is encouraged and protected. The students were asked to abide by the university’s postering policy," to which he linked. "The students were also advised by University Police that attaching the posters to the walls of the Downtown Academic Center was not permitted and that people that they were handing the posters to were dropping them onto the floors of the building and this was problematic."
Binghamton's Black Student Union spoke out in support of the students who hung the anti-racist flyers, stating that they were exercising their "right to protest multiple racist incidents that have transpired this academic school year."
"The students relied on flyers that spoke against the prejudice acts to tackle the issue head-on in hopes of having their voices heard," Sarah Merke, the political correspondent for the BSU, told Refinery29. "We believe the students were honorable in taking initiative to challenge the injustice being done."
This week, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights In Education), a nonpartisan free-speech watchdog group, issued a statement about the incident, calling on Binghamton to "drop its investigation and commit to ensuring its campus police respect students' first amendment rights." When asked about this, Yarosh reiterated that there's no investigation.
"By surveilling students' expressive activity and warning them that they would be held accountable for their peers' behavior" — throwing away the flyers — "campus police implied that students were engaging in prohibited conduct and could face punishment for doing so," FIRE senior program officer Sarah McLaughlin said in a statement. "Unless the university reverses course, Binghamton University risks chilling the speech of not just the students distributing flyers, but the entire student body."
While Binghamton cracked down on students for posting anti-racist material in protest, other universities have defended the existence of flyers that are offensive to various racial and ethnic groups, such as one at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA, that said, "Diversity is just a code word for white genocide." In that case, the university affirmed the racist poster's right to free speech, reminding us that colleges are supposed to foster a diversity of ideas and opinions that lead to students' growth.
But that fervent defense of free speech hasn't been extended to students who wanted to start a conversation about fighting racism.
"With all the racial issues that have occurred at Binghamton, I've never seen such a strong reaction by the school or officials than what happened with this incident," Lindsey Sabado, a 2017 Binghamton graduate, told Refinery29. "It's very disappointing that it's the anti-racist flyers that they're cracking down on and not the perpetrators of offensive acts."