In Pages of ‘Cornell Sun,’ Students Pen Strong Rebuttals to Misguided Editorial

By December 3, 2009

Last week here on The Torch, I criticized the Cornell Sun for publishing an editorial that misunderstood the core importance of freedom of association and its integral relationship to freedom of expression. This week, I’m pleased to be able to highlight Cornell students authoring their own incisive critiques of the editorial in the pages of the Sun.

First, let’s recap the controversy that prompted the editorial and locate precisely where the Sun went wrong.

Last spring, Chi Alpha Christian fellowship, a Christian student group at Cornell, requested that a student abdicate his leadership position in the organization after the student’s views about his sexual orientation changed dramatically. Specifically, the student, who is gay, decided he no longer agreed with the group’s position on homosexual sexual behavior. (Group members knew he was gay when he joined the group, but at the time he evidently agreed with the group’s position on sexual issues.) While continuing to offer him a regular membership, the group decided that he could no longer serve as a leader, given the suddenly sharp divergence between his views and the group’s core tenets. As I explained last week, this decision is entirely reasonable; to have any meaning at all, freedom of association must grant expressive groups the right to make belief-based choices about their leadership and voting membership. If an expressive group cannot require that its leaders share the group’s central beliefs, the group is denied the ability to control its message.

Nevertheless, some on campus were outraged by what they perceived as an act of "discrimination" against the student. In response, the Student Assembly Finance Commission suspended the group’s funding and launched an investigation into the incident. Following the conclusion of the investigation, the funding freeze was removed and no punishment was issued against Chi Alpha, but the Student Assembly crafted a proposed change to Cornell’s Campus Code of Conduct that would prevent groups like Chi Alpha from "discriminating" again in the future. At that time, FIRE wrote Cornell President David Skorton a letter, pointing out the severe damage the proposed change would do to the freedoms of association and expression at Cornell. We wrote:

If Cornell is to allow expressive organizations to exist on its campus at all, it must allow religious organizations to exist, to define their missions, to select their own leaders, and to establish policies, practices, and associations with other groups in pursuit of their goals. No group can control the delivery of its message if it is unable to determine its expressive purpose, membership, and activities. In mandating that a group accept a leader who explicitly denies one of the group’s beliefs, Cornell University essentially establishes its own denomination of each religion on campus. The promulgation of a "Cornell-approved" denomination of Islam, of Christianity, of Judaism, and of every religion will result in an enforced religious orthodoxy whereby certain beliefs are deemed acceptable and others unacceptable.

Both President Skorton and members of the University Assembly heard and understood our argument, and the University Assembly voted last month to abandon the proposed change that it had approved in April.

But because the Sun‘s editors didn’t understand the relationship between protecting the right of student groups to insist that their leaders share the group’s beliefs and freedom of expression, the paper published an editorial last week slamming both FIRE and the University Assembly’s vote. The Sun wrote:

A Campus Code of Conduct that does not protect against discrimination inherently accepts it. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education maintains that an anti-discrimination clause stifles free expression. But in reality, permitting discrimination promotes an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, which threatens free expression. This is not the atmosphere that should be fostered at an academic institution, which relies heavily on the prosperity of academic inquiry.

In the case of group membership and leadership, there exists no conflict between discrimination and freedom of expression. Student groups have every right to express their beliefs. When these expressions are acted upon, however, the group has crossed a fundamental line and personal expression becomes an infringement upon others’ rights. Expulsion from a leadership position is an example of such an action.

I responded here last week, but happily several Cornell students have now responded to this argument’s flaws as well.

First, I encourage Torch readers to check out the many excellent comments posted by students to the Sun‘s editorial (scroll to the bottom). One commenter writes:

Basically, this editorial is implicating the elimination of nearly ALL religious groups on campus. With the exception of perhaps Universal Unitarians, nearly every religion (Islam, Judaism, Christianity, etc.) could be accused of "discrimination." If a Christian group won’t say that "people from all religions go to heaven no matter what" and won’t let a [M]uslim student be a Bible study leader, then are they "discriminating" against someone’s religious beliefs. What if the leader of a Muslim student group converts to Christianity; should that student group be FORCED to keep the same leader who would then possibly teach beliefs in disagreement with Islam?

Next, Cornell senior (and former Sun staffer) Mike Wacker wrote an op-ed published yesterday attacking what he characterized as the Sun‘s "simple yet wrong argument." While Wacker’s whole piece is excellent, here’s a particularly insightful excerpt:

Saying discrimination is bad is like saying 75 is a bad score on a test without knowing the mean score for the class.

Some would quickly pull out the church and state card, but under that argument, all religious organizations would have to be defunded a priori based solely on their religious status. It is an entirely different argument to say that Cornell should pick and choose a posteriori which religious organizations it will fund based on how socially acceptable their doctrines are. Such discrimination amounts to the state imposing its views on the church, threatening freedom of religion.

Another simple yet wrong argument, one which The Sun posed in an editorial, argues for the distinction between words and actions. In this respect, The Cornell Review’s offensive articles and Chi Alpha’s actions are supposedly different. However, Chi Alpha did not act against people outside their organization; they acted within their organization. Internal actions are protected by freedom of association.

Furthermore, The Sun claimed that the lack of a strong anti-discrimination clause violates free expression because it "promotes an atmosphere of fear and intimidation." I am absolutely sure that no minority would ever argue that the Cornell Review’s presence creates this atmosphere. Nope, never!

In determining what qualifies as free expression, a better distinction than "words vs. actions" would be the one established by the Supreme Court in Roberts v. United States Jaycees, a case that also dealt with an anti-discrimination law. In a unanimous decision, the court supported an organization’s freedom of association, which "plainly presupposes a freedom not to associate." It stated that there is "no clearer example of an intrusion" than meddling in an organization’s internal affairs, and that doing so "may impair the ability of the original members to express only those views that brought them together."

While this freedom is not absolute, infringements of it must serve purposes "unrelated to the suppression of ideas." Since the Jaycees did not have the flavor of a "purely young men’s association," nor did they advocate distinctly male ideas, the Supreme Court upheld the application of Minnesota’s anti-discrimination against them, forcing them to admit women. In the case of Chi Alpha, though, there was a clear intent to suppress theological ideas considered socially unacceptable, ideas deeply embedded in the theological doctrine of the organization.

Now if only we had a Campus Code of Conduct that would make that distinction. Since Cornell so emphatically advocates diversity, I am sure it would recognize that such a code is essential for, in the Supreme Court’s own words, "preserving political and cultural diversity."

(I acknowledge Cornell is a private institution and is not legally bound by this decision. But if it thinks itself wiser than our courts and our Constitution, I would love to hear the rationale.)

Finally, I encourage Torch readers to check out a letter to the editor by Cornell senior, CFN member, and former FIRE intern John Cetta published in today’s Sun. John, who also serves as the Liaison to the University Assembly’s Codes and Judicial Committee, contests several misconceptionsperhaps most importantly, the Sun‘s contention that Chi Alpha’s actions created "an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, which threatens free expression." In response, John argues eloquently:

The Chi Alpha incident sparked a heated and persistent campus debate. Numerous letters to the editor have been written. Assemblies and prayer vigils have been held. Free expression is clearly alive and vibrant on our campus. It even sparked this critical evaluation of campus policy. The Chi Alpha incident has catalyzed, not threatened, the bountiful dialogue. That, after all, is the point of an unimpeded marketplace of ideas with freedom of speech and freedom of association.

We’re very pleased to see such a clear understanding of the importance of free expression and the freedom of association evident among many Cornell students. As we frequently say, the answer to misguided speech is more speech. We are pleased that Cornell students have taken it upon themselves to educate the Cornell Sun‘s editorial board about the value of expressive association on campus.

Schools: Cornell University