Cornell Assembly Scraps Illiberal Policy – For Now

November 23, 2009

The Cornell University Assembly has voted to remove part of a proposed policy in the Campus Code of Conduct that posed a significant threat to freedom of association. The Cornell Sun reports:

After months of deliberation, the University Assembly passed a resolution this October to remove a clause from the Campus Code of Conduct designed to prevent special-interest student organizations from discriminating against certain groups in their criteria for membership. The resolution cited the need for more extensive debate on “the interplay of discrimination, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly” on campus.

The policy was originally devised after Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship asked student leader Chris Donohoe to step down from his leadership position in the group. Donohoe had publically announced he was unapologetically in a gay relationship in contravention of the organization’s beliefs. The University Assembly subsequently froze the group’s funding. After finding that the group did not violate any policies, funding was restored, but the policy change was suggested so that in the future Cornell student groups could not take similar actions.

The Sun notes that in May, FIRE wrote Cornell President David Skorton regarding the incident. We expressed our concern “about the threat to freedom of religion, expressive association, and legal equality posed” by the university’s response to this incident. As we explained in our letter:

An expressive organization, whether it is religious, political, or something else, must be allowed to limit its leadership to people who share the group’s beliefs. The College Democrats must not be forced to maintain a leader who no longer is a Democrat or rejects various Democratic political beliefs, a Muslim group must not be forced to maintain a leader who no longer believes in tenets of Islam that the group deems important, and a Christian group must not be forced to maintain a leader who no longer agrees with the specific Christian doctrine of the group.

Following receipt of our letter, Skorton asked that a footnote be inserted into the policy to assure protection for “free speech, freedom of association and religious freedom.”

CFN member and former FIRE intern John Cetta currently serves as the University Assembly’s student liaison to the Codes and Judicial Committee, which is responsible for the policy revisions. In September, John penned an excellent letter to the editor in The Sun stating that Skorton’s proposed footnote, while a nice acknowledgment of students’ rights, does not do nearly enough to protect free expression on campus, and that the policy itself must be revised.

The Sun points out that Cornell receives a red-light rating from FIRE for its illiberal policies especially, as the article notes, for its overly broad and vague harassment policies. We detailed the problems with Cornell’s policies last spring in our “State of Free Speech on Campus” blog series. FIRE’s Will Creeley spoke at Cornell on September 1 and addressed Cornell’s problematic speech codes and the importance of free speech to a truly liberal education. Today’s article quotes Will:

I think that every student should demand a modern liberal education, which means being exposed to viewpoints with which one might not be comfortable. When students are exposed to a wide range of ideas, their ability to counter in an argument those ideas with which they disagree will be stronger and they will learn more.

As John chronicled on The Torch this summer, Cornell has often had a tortured relationship with free speech. FIRE is therefore pleased with this turn of events. We congratulate John on his hard work and the Cornell University Assembly for doing the right thing and defending the rights of Cornell students. We encourage the University Assembly to continue to investigate ways in which Cornell’s policies can be improved to protect the expressive rights of its students and the quality of their liberal educationand to stop looking for ways to limit the freedom of student groups. FIRE is willing to offer whatever guidance we can.

Schools:  Cornell University