Intolerance of Tolerance: Cornell University, A Model of Illiberalism

By August 6, 2009

This blog entry was authored by John Cetta, a student at Cornell University and FIRE summer intern. 

Cornell University’s disdain for free speech, due process, and other fundamental rights has been well documented and frequently commented upon since FIRE’s founding. Eleven years ago in The Shadow University, FIRE founders Harvey Silverglate and Alan Charles Kors described the denial of due process in the McCarthy-style inquisition of renowned Cornell psychology professor James Maas. Recently, FIRE criticized Cornell administrators’ lack of respect for the most basic free speech rights when an administrator, ostensibly acting under the guise of "unwritten policy," attempted to censor the university-approved signage of a student group based on the "content" of the display.

We at FIRE, and all of those who follow higher education closely, know that these deplorable incidents are unfortunately typical at college campuses today. Even worse, however, I have witnessed a much more disturbing form of tyranny develop on my campus: tyranny imposed not by politically correct administrators, but by the students themselves.

Last September, following the publication of a satirical article in a conservative campus publication, the Student Assembly (SA) sought to collaborate with the Office of the Dean of Students to prevent any future publication of what it deemed "hateful terminology." This crusade of censorship began as a campaign to remove "Cornell" from the title of the Cornell Review, a student-run, independent publication. To make matters worse, the SA, upon consultation with Professor Steven Shiffrin of Cornell Law School (a First Amendment scholar nonetheless!), determined that the mere censorship of a campus publication was not enough: the SA would work with the Dean of Students to revise the Campus Code of Conduct so as to prevent the "alienation and intimidation" that a free press was apparently causing. Students—I repeat, not administrators, but students—took it upon themselves to seek formal provisions within institutional policy that would serve to inhibit the expressive rights of their fellow students. During a recent FIRE intern seminar in which I had the pleasure of participating, Todd Zywicki, a professor at George Mason University School of Law and a friend of FIRE, remarked that such incidents occur partly because the idea of tolerance has been lost on campus—as though one must either endorse or prohibit a given group or idea, and simple toleration is not an option.

The lack of tolerance for minority and politically unfavorable viewpoints on the SA became apparent again this past April. The SA froze the funding of a religious student group that had removed a member from a leadership position after that member disavowed core tenets of the group’s beliefs. The religious group, which, as part of its founding principles, believes homosexual acts to be sinful, removed a leader who used to agree but who later changed his mind. One SA member, who proclaimed that "personal rights have been violated," expressed the near-unanimous sentiment of the SA. (There was only one dissenting vote in the SA’s decision to freeze the group’s funds.) However, I must ask, what rights are those? The right to lead a group whose purpose and beliefs you reject? Does a registered Republican have the right to serve on the leadership board of the Cornell Democrats? Does an ardently pro-life student have the right to make policy for a pro-choice group? I certainly hope not; otherwise, the ability of students to freely associate is nonexistent. Yet, that is precisely the position that members of the SA took.

Such absurdities are emblematic of systemic problems in society and the academy today. As my fellow FIRE intern Tim discussed earlier, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff remonstratively expounds upon the "unlearning of liberty" that takes place on our college campuses. FIRE supporter Donald Downs, professor at the University of Wisconsin, has opined that this process is caused by cowardice in the face of "victimism." This "involves elevating social justice claims and identity politics over the principles and practices of free inquiry and intellectual conscience." Professor Downs would probably say that Cornell first began unlearning liberty in 1969, when the administration caved to this victimism and became one of the first "post-liberal" universities, that is, a campus where "social justice and identity politics" trump unfettered intellectual debate and inquiry. No longer must administrators cave to the victimism of radical students, however; students themselves now create their own notions of victimhood, such as claiming they feel "intimidated" after reading political satire. The truth is that adult Cornell students are not wimps—they can handle vigorous debate and trenchant satire.

The events at Cornell show that a student body miseducated in liberty is just as threatening to the marketplace of ideas as a censorship-happy administration. However, this sad trend need not continue. If only the members of the Cornell Student Assembly would read a set of FIRE’s Guides! While Professor Zywicki has lamented the lack of tolerance on campuses today, he also has noted the significant power that students enjoy because, on campus, "students possess credibility like none other." Although students at Cornell have tended to wield their voice in a manner contrary to liberty, students who have a better understanding of the need for liberal tolerance at our universities, and in our society generally, may be able to reverse the course of intolerance. This is why the effort to better educate students on the meaning and significance of basic rights and liberties is among FIRE’s most significant work.

Schools: Cornell University