Confused Cornell

October 26, 2005

Some FIRE fans are no doubt aware that our fearless leader, David French, used to be a lecturer at Cornell Law School. If this recent article in the Cornell Daily Sun is accurate, perhaps we should send David back to the lovely town of Ithaca, as the folks there seem utterly confused about what freedom means. Here is how the article begins:

Several hundred Cornellians joined eight panelists last night in an event specifically tailored to foster discussion on topics such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech. The event, titled “Censor This: A panel discussion on when, if ever, limits on the press are appropriate,” was sponsored by StudPubs, an umbrella organization consisting of all student publications at Cornell.
Some of the panelists supported the freedom of speech unconditionally, while others felt certain limitations were necessary, especially on a college campus. The panelists wholeheartedly agreed that freedom of speech encourages beneficial and worthy dialogue.

As NFL color commentators often say, “Stop the tape!” First of all, what does “support[ing] the freedom of speech unconditionally” mean? If the phrase is intended to suggest that absolutely no restrictions can be levied on speech, it’s essentially meaningless—no one really believes that. For example, the Supreme Court has held that commercial speech, obscenity, incitement, slander, and libel can all be regulated to some extent or another.
But the next part of the sentence is even more objectionable: “[O]thers felt certain limitations were necessary, especially on a college campus.” Yes, as was just pointed out, “certain limitations” are acceptable, but whence comes this idea that speech “on a college campus” should be “especially” regulated? FIRE believes quite the opposite. As we point out on our “Free Speech” webpage, “Freedom of speech is a fundamental American freedom, and nowhere should it be more valued and protected than at America’s colleges and universities.” Secular colleges and universities are, at least in theory, uniquely committed to the search for truth and to the formation of young minds—there is a reason, after all, that only people at universities have the special protection of this thing called “academic freedom.” They should be more free, certainly not less, to express ideas, even controversial ones, and so should their students.
And the article gets worse from there. Here is what student Justin Davis said: “On a college campus, there are certain things you can and can’t do. You can’t be ‘punkish’ and not accept the responsibility of your words.”
Wait, what? Apologies to Davis, but there is no “punkish” exception to the First Amendment. I’m not quite sure what that word even means, but I imagine that this student is just reprising the frequently heard theme that speech can be regulated simply because it is “offensive.” Again, FIRE’s “Free Speech” webpage provides the answer:

The “marketplace of ideas” upon which a university depends for its intellectual vitality cannot flourish when students or faculty members must fear punishment for expressing views that might be unpopular with the public at large or disfavored by university administrators.

But perhaps the comment of the day comes from Cornell administrator Gary Stewart, whom the article identifies as a former newspaper journalist. Stewart opined, “The freedom of the press is a very gray issue.” No, Gary, it isn’t. Here’s all you need to know. Cornell has publicly committed itself (warning: PDF) to respecting “[f]reedom to teach and to learn, to express oneself and to be heard, and freedom to assemble and lawfully protest peacefully.” It has called those things “essential to academic freedom and the continuing function of the university as an educational institution.” It has even said that the “principle of freedom with responsibility is central to Cornell University.”
All of this simply means Cornell should honor the First Amendment. That’s not rocket science—it just means Cornell has to guarantee its students the same rights to which their counterparts at all public universities are legally entitled. But it is clearly not being done, since Cornell has a red-light speech code.
One other thing should be noted. According to the Daily Sun piece, the forum at which these comments were made “was partially inspired by recent incidents surrounding The Cornell American’s September 2005 article titled ‘The Color of Cornell’s Crime.’” I can’t find a good article summarizing that controversy, but the American story in question is here, and I can definitely see why people were upset. But even when confronted with journalism as objectionable as that, Everet Yi, the leader of Cornell’s ACLU chapter, was right to point out, “The best way to fight hate speech is to talk about it,” not to silence it.

Schools:  Cornell University