FIRE Speech at Cornell a Success

By September 3, 2009

As I mentioned earlier this week, FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley spoke at Cornell University on Tuesday night. Yesterday, The Cornell Daily Sun posted an article about Will’s speech.

In his lecture to a packed room in Goldwin Smith Hall, Will talked about some of FIRE’s worst cases and the restrictive speech codes in force at most universities. According to FIRE’s third annual report on campus speech codes, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2009: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, 77 percent of public universities and 67 percent of private universities maintain illiberal policies that violate constitutional protections of free speech. Will explained that private institutions can establish their own policies to restrict speech in accordance with institutional values that they hold higher than free speech-but the institutions must make that clear in their policies.

Cornell, for its part, makes robust promises of free expression to its students. The Campus Code of Conduct states:

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. 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. One may argue against inviting a speaker on the grounds that the speaker has nothing of importance to say. But once members of the university community extend an invitation, others may not disrupt the speech on the grounds that they find it stupid, immoral, or dangerous.

Any student reading such a statement would think that speech was free at Cornell, that even speech regarded by the vast majority of the university community as heinous would still have a place in Cornell’s microcosm of the "marketplace of ideas." However, Cornell maintains policies that belie this promise, which is why Cornell receives a red light rating in Spotlight, FIRE’s database of campus speech codes. For example, Cornell’s policy on Prohibited Discrimination bans "bias-motivated jokes or statements." Will dubbed this policy a "Trojan horse," as the vague restriction compromises Cornell’s promise of free expression. As Will said, Cornell’s policies "promise with one hand and take away with the other." While some might argue that the Prohibited Discrimination policy would probably not be enforced against the vast majority of offensive and derogatory expression, the fact is that Cornell has reserved to itself the ability to punish such speech at its own discretion. As Will told the crowd:

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. … [However] 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.

Of course, Will emphasized the nonpartisan nature of FIRE. While some groups can credibly be accused of defending only speech they like while promising to defend speech for all, Will points out that "We really practice what we preach and that’s what makes us unique." This is important because, as Will says, "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." That has certainly been FIRE’s experience.

If you’re interested in bringing a FIRE speaker to your campus, check out FIRE’s speakers page.