Social Work Graduate Student at SUNY-Binghamton Facing Punishment for Criticizing Department and Its Relationship with City Housing Authority:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education so reports:

Binghamton University's Department of Social Work ordered the suspension of a master's student for one year with no guarantee of return, required him to apologize, and demanded that he publicly disavow his own views after he put up posters challenging the department for having hired the executive director of the Binghamton Housing Authority (BHA)—an agency the student thought was responsible for social injustice. Student Andre Massena, who remains in school pending an appeal, has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help....

On August 25, 2008, Massena put up posters on campus claiming that a woman and her children had been unjustly evicted from their home by the BHA. Under the pseudonym "JUSTICESPEAKS," the poster called the BHA "inhumane" and noted that its executive director, David K. Tanenhaus, is an adjunct professor at the school's Department of Social Work. The poster encouraged readers to call the department "to let them know what you think."

Massena chose anonymity after hearing stories from other students in the department about students being unjustly "advanced" (expelled) from the program. When interrogated about the posters, Massena exercised his right to anonymous speech by declining to acknowledge authorship -- a decision ultimately cited as the official reason for Massena's punishment.

One week later, Massena received a "Written Plan" from his department. It failed to specify any alleged violations, but nevertheless assigned him shockingly onerous and unconstitutional requirements to complete in order to continue his master's program....

And a SUNY document posted by FIRE strongly supports the view that the student is being retaliated against for his speech:

This written plan was created in the spirit of a strengths-based commitment to Mr. Massena’s professional and personal growth, with the hope of all parties moving forward in a positive manner.

Specific actions to be undertaken by Mr. Massena and the dates by which these actions must be completed follow:

1. Mr. Massena will withdraw from all MSW courses for which he is enrolled for the fall term of 2008. He will take a two-semester leave of absence (Fall 2008 and Spring 2009) from the MSW program, in order to reflect upon his readiness to enter the field of social work as a professional practitioner, given his actions during late August, 2008, and the likely as well as possible consequences (both immediate and long-term) of his actions to various individuals, the Dept. of Social Work, Binghamton University, the Greater Binghamton community, and his own professional development....

5. By September 30, 2008, a formal statement of retraction will be written by Mr. Massena, to be signed and dated by him, and forwarded to the President of Binghamton University, the Binghamton University Dept. of Social Work, and the Binghamton Housing Authority, indicating that he does not agree with, and regrets the sentiments expressed in the following statement, which he promoted, initially, by distributing posters/leaflets at the University Downtown Center that said: “We will in no way, shape, or form apologize for any harm or inconvenience this poster may cause Binghamton Housing Authority or Binghamton University and their affiliates.”

6. Mr. Massena will make every effort possible and will inform Profs. Bronstein and Wiener of his efforts to end the process whereby students, service providers and community members approach the Dept. of Social Work in an effort to alleviate “wrong” they may see as occurring at the Binghamton Housing Authority....

7. By September 30, 2008, Mr. Massena will acknowledge verbally to Dr. Bronstein and Dr. Wiener that he understands that he is entitled to his opinions, and that taking responsibility for the harm that his actions have and may have caused is not the same as having these opinions.

8. By May 8, 2009, Mr. Massena will have completed an APA-formatted, 10-12 page critical reflection paper .... The subject of this paper will be: “effective professional strategies in the ethical practice of ‘macro’ social work in the early 21st century.” Mr. Massena will be provided with an initial reference for this paper (a scholarly essay by Olson) by Dr. Wiener, and the essay by Olson will be the foundational premise from which Mr. Massena’s essay begins. Mr. Massena will be responsible for finding four additional “outside sources” to support his self-reflections; the development of his “professional use of self” will be evident in the paper, and the “outside” references are not meant to “trump” his own “voice.” In contrast, his “voice” should have primacy....

Perhaps there are more facts that suggest that Mr. Massena misbehaved in ways other than just criticizing the city and linking the department to the city's actions (on the grounds that "Binghamton Housing's Director holds a [master's] degree in social work and is currenly teaching social work at [SUNY-Binghamton]"); but neither FIRE nor the report points to them, and I have found FIRE to be highly credible and thorough in its accounts in the past. And beyond that, the report's orders to Massena suggest that SUNY was indeed complaining about the content of the criticism ("Mr. Massena will make every effort possible and will inform Profs. Bronstein and Wiener of his efforts to end the process whereby students, service providers and community members approach the Dept. of Social Work in an effort to alleviate “wrong” they may see as occurring at the Binghamton Housing Authority") and the effects of that content, rather than some unspecified other misbehavior. Seems to me like a clear violation of the First Amendment and of student academic freedom principles.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. SUNY-Binghamton "Abandons Attempt to Suspend or Expel" Student Critic:
  2. Social Work Graduate Student at SUNY-Binghamton Facing Punishment for Criticizing Department and Its Relationship with City Housing Authority: