By Leigh Roberts | January 30, 2023
A lead organizer for the UAlbany Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) filed a federal lawsuit Jan. 11 against several members of UAlbany staff and administration, including UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez. The lawsuit alleges that during a GSEU protest at UAlbany’s Homecoming Pregame event, a member of UAlbany administration physically restrained plaintiff Amie Zimmerman, while UPD Chief of Police Paul Burlingame verbally accosted her for chanting with a megaphone. The lawsuit also alleges UAlbany took retaliatory disciplinary measures against Zimmerman when she filed a complaint with the school.
The plaintiff alleges her First Amendment rights were violated while protesting at UAlbany’s Oct. 15 Homecoming game, located at the Tom & Mary Casey Stadium (pictured)
Photo Credit: Leigh Roberts / The ASP
Zimmerman is a graduate assistant and one of two organizers for the UAlbany branch of the GSEU. She claims her First Amendment rights were violated when Burlingame filed a disciplinary incident report against her due to her use of a megaphone at the Oct. 15 Homecoming event.
“Obviously there’s a First Amendment rights issue going on here,” said Zimmerman in an interview with the ASP. “You can’t stop me from protesting.”
In addition, Zimmerman alleges that the disciplinary report was filed as a direct result of her own complaint that she was grabbed by a UAlbany administrator at the event.
“It’s clear-cut retaliation,” says Zimmerman.
In his disciplinary incident report, Burlingame details how he approached Zimmerman during the event and asked her to stop using a megaphone. She complied and continued protesting without the megaphone, until 15 minutes later the protestors made their exit from the Homecoming venue while Zimmerman resumed chanting through the megaphone.
Campus policy prohibits megaphones at school events with an attendance of more than 200 individuals.
It’s at this point that, according to Zimmerman, she was grabbed and held in place by Todd Foreman, UAlbany’s Vice President for Finance and Administration, while Burlingame verbally accosted her. This confrontation left “deep indentations in her upper arm and shoulder” as she struggled to break free from Foreman’s grasp.
“You are an employer and I am your employee, so clearly you’re not allowed to put your hands on me anyway,” said Zimmerman of her confrontation with Foreman.
Burlingame’s report does not mention the physical altercation, but does detail that he followed Zimmerman to a point outside the event, where he informed her that she would be referred to Student Conduct for her actions.
In response to the lawsuit, UAlbany released the following statement:
“UAlbany is committed to protecting the rights of free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions, and GSEU members have repeatedly and freely exercised these rights on campus.”
In addition, the statement alleges that Zimmerman’s complaint contains “numerous inaccuracies and mischaracterizations,” which UAlbany plans to contest in court.
UAlbany also declined to comment on the investigation into the alleged student conduct violation, citing student confidentiality.
The GSEU represents Graduate and Teaching Assistants at campuses across the SUNY system. Since 1974, the GSEU has been campaigning for better working conditions and salaries for SUNY’s graduate student employees. An online petition addressed to President Rodríguez, Provost Kim, Dean of Graduate Studies Williams, and Vice President of Finances Foreman calls for the elimination of fees that graduate students employed by the University must pay back to their employers. Fees for graduate students participating in Master and PhD programs at UAlbany are $1,187.50 per semester. The GSEU has successfully eliminated these fees for graduate workers at several SUNY campuses, including Buffalo, Stony Brook, and Binghamton.
“These fees, which can cost 15-20% of our take home pay per year, are quite literally a pay-to-work scheme that would not be tolerated in any other industry,” reads the petition.
In response to pressure from the GSEU, UAlbany instituted a “fee scholarship” that covers some, but not all of these fees for select graduate workers. The GSEU is demanding more action from UAlbany. For more information about the initial petition, see the ASP’s Dec. coverage on the GSEU.