FIRE to Binghamton U: Your Rights Do Not Override Others’ First Amendment Rights

The Associated Press
Bebeto Matthews/AP

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) responded to the recent protests at Binghamton University in New York, which has resulted in the cancellation of two events put on by conservative groups. According to FIRE, “it should take more than a bullhorn to override the First Amendment at Binghamton.”

Last week, a leftist mob surrounded and harassed conservative students at Binghamton University, forcing them to end their outdoor campus activity early. On Monday, student protesters were back, but this time, inside a lecture hall, where the school’s College Republicans group had attempted to host economist Arthur Laffer.

Due to the behavior of the protesters, either police officers or school administrators decided to cancel the event just minutes after it began, which FIRE says has stifled the free speech rights of the event attendees who were ultimately unable to hear Laffer deliver his remarks.

“A protester with a bullhorn hijacked a Nov. 18 lecture from economist Art Laffer, who was invited to speak by the BU College Republicans,” explained FIRE in a statement. “The shoutdown, which happened just minutes after the event began, is the latest in a disturbing trend of protesters silencing others rather than debating them.”

While a recent piece in the school’s student newspaper contends that Monday’s debacle had simply been a display of protesters exercising their own rights to “free speech,” FIRE pointed out a glaring paradox, noting that “there is a sad irony in protesters chanting ‘Free speech!’ as police attempted to allow the event to proceed.”

“The First Amendment right to peaceful protest doesn’t override someone else’s First Amendment right to speak (and to hear those they’ve invited to speak) in spaces they’ve reserved,” explained FIRE, stating that the biggest threat to free speech on the night of the event was “the vigilante censors who decided they alone should dictate what others can say or hear.”

“The First Amendment does not protect continuous protest intended to make it impossible for an event to continue,” added the organization. “Protesters don’t have the right to silence a speaker’s event, and open discourse is not for sale to the loudest bidder.”

FIRE mentioned that universities “should step in” regarding instances in which “a time and space is reserved for a particular speaker” and protesters create a prolonged disruption to the point where it hinders the ability of those who chose to attend the event to hear from the speaker.

“The exact nature of what transpired between police and protesters at the event is unclear,” noted FIRE, adding that in situations where officers “intervene in response to hostile audiences, they must use the ‘least restrictive means for coping with a crowd’s hostile reaction’ and cannot simply silence the speaker, lest they effectuate a heckler’s veto.”

“It’s not immediately clear whether [canceling the event] was law enforcement’s last resort, or whether the decision to end the event was made by law enforcement,” added the organization. “Either way, FIRE is disappointed that the event didn’t continue after the protesters were removed.”

Nonetheless, FIRE maintains that “it should take more than a bullhorn to override the First Amendment at Binghamton.”

You can follow Alana Mastrangelo on Twitter at @ARmastrangelo, and on Instagram.

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