Student activism is a long-standing tradition at Cornell, and the University’s creed pledges full and equal protection of students’ rights; but there is a devil in the details.
Cornell’s policies on harassment, tolerance, respect and civility contain so-called speech codes – "Trojan horses" embedded within University guidelines that limit the scope of free speech on campus.
William Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, addressed this topic, and the overlying issue of students’ First Amendment rights, yesterday evening in Goldwin Smith Hall. "There’s a discrepancy," he said. "They promise with one hand and take away with the other."
Cornell’s commitment to free expression is clear: "Because it is a special kind of community, whose purpose is the discovery of truth through the practice of free inquiry, a university has an essential dependence on a commitment to the values of unintimidated speech," University policy states. "To curb speech on the grounds that an invited speaker is noxious, that a cause is evil or that such ideas will offend some listeners is therefore inconsistent with a university’s purpose."
Yet, Cornell received a "red light" rating from FIRE on the grounds that it "has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech."
"Most universities maintain policies that limit free speech on campus," Creeley said. "The numbers really are shocking." 67 percent of private universities and 77 percent of public institutions have unconstitutional speech codes.
Public universities, as government entities, are bound by the First Amendment. Private institutions draft their own codes of conduct that students must comply with upon matriculation.
Though Cornell is openly in favor of student expression, harassment violations under University policy like "making bias-motivated jokes or statements" are not included in protected speech. This stipulation, among others, could be easily stretched.
"They would not and do not match up to strict legal standard," Creeley said. "If you tell a joke from The Daily Show to your fellow student you are engaging in bias-motivated jokes or statements. Is an administrator necessarily going to punish a student for that? Perhaps not. The problem is that Cornell gives them the discrepancy to do so."
"You put your academic career in the hands of an administrator who may not be inclined to agree with you and he has a policy to back him up," Creeley said.
Though administrators currently do not appear to be taking liberal advantage of the loopholes in Cornell’s policy, they would be complying with University codes if they chose to.
The legal basis for university policies that interfere with the freedom of speech is the freedom of assembly. Private institutions have a constitutional right to establish a university under a specific creed.
Konstantin Drabkin ’11 stressed the importance of free expression, even when one’s views are in the minority. "[We] have the right to the freedom of speech," Drabkin said. "Professors are going to tell you things you don’t believe. … It can be difficult when you’re sitting in a lecture of 300 people to raise your hand and speak for your beliefs, but that’s what you’ve got to do."
Creeley responded that generally professors are entitled to their own opinions but these opinions cannot influence a professor to lower a student’s grade because of his or her own biases.
"We believe in students being strong enough to participate in the rough-and-tumble of democracy," Creeley said. "We have a saying at FIRE: If you go through four years of college and you’re never offended by something, you should ask for your money back."
FIRE is non-partisan, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. They coordinate legislation in defense of freedom of speech, due process, legal equality, religious liberty and sanctity of conscience.
"We really practice what we preach and that’s what makes us unique," Creeley said.
FIRE is broad in its representation, defending groups as diametrically opposed as evangelical Christian organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The great thing about free speech is that sooner or later everyone’s free speech gets challenged, no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on."
Details about the University’s FIRE rating can be found at www.thefire.org.Download file "5"
Schools: Cornell University