Former FIRE Intern John Cetta Speaks out for Freedom of Association at Cornell

By February 12, 2010

Yesterday, Azhar wrote here on The Torch about the Cornell University Assembly’s (UA’s) decision this week to insert a new non-discrimination clause into the Campus Code of Conduct. As Azhar pointed out:

Cornell has in the recent past used a non-discrimination rationale to deny a student organization, the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship, the right to associate around shared beliefs. Last year, the Student Assembly froze the group’s funding because it removed a member from a leadership position after the student disavowed core tenets of the group’s beliefs. Given the misunderstanding of the freedom of association on Cornell’s campus, there is an additional concern that the new non-discrimination clause will be used to deny organizations the important right to associate around shared beliefs.

2009 FIRE intern John Cetta, Undergraduate Student Representative to the UA, along with two other UA representatives, have voiced concerns as well. In a letter published today in The Cornell Daily Sun, Cetta and his fellow representatives call for Cornell President David Skorton to ensure that the right of student groups to gather around shared beliefs without interference is upheld. They write:

We believe that it is absolutely vital that the harassment addressed by this resolution not be conflated with the type of scenario that occurred last spring — the Chi Alpha incident. That incident was a case of alleged discrimination in membership of student groups. The new language adopted by the U.A. does not even mention "discrimination." This resolution addresses the separate albeit related issue of harassment on campus. This resolution is unconnected to the U.A.’s previous attempts at tackling Chi-Alpha-incident-type discrimination. Indeed, this resolution, as initially presented to the U.A., included prefatory language alluding to the Chi Alpha incident and the U.A.’s prior actions regarding it, but the U.A. removed that language in the final resolution so as to prevent the very type of equivocation of "harassment" and "discrimination" engaged in by the editorial.

Additionally, this resolution poses a significant threat to free speech at Cornell. When governing bodies put the campus "on notice," as Andrew Brokman put it in yesterday’s article, that harassment has consequences, it is vital that this notice be for true harassment, which indisputably must be prosecuted and punished. However, when such consequences may arise not just from true harassment, but from legitimate exercises of free expression, a chilling effect is imposed on speech — something which cannot be tolerated on a university campus.

Thanks as always to John for his tireless and eloquent defense of student rights as Cornell. Go to the Cornell Daily Sun website to read the whole letter, and keep checking The Torch as Cornell continues wrestling with this important issue.

Schools: Cornell University