Last month, Cornell University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter placed 50 signs critically highlighting Israel’s relationship with and policies affecting Palestine in the school’s Arts Quad. It took only three hours for a student to attempt to censor the group by removing the display.
SJP members managed to stop this student, but others quickly took up where she left off. By the time the group decided to shut down the event three days later, most of the signs had been stolen or destroyed.
SJP member Alec Desbordes spoke to Cornell’s student newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun, pointing out that this incident negatively affected not only SJP but also the Cornell community, by infringing upon the group’s ability to promote dialogue on campus:
“It’s not a simple of question of policy. Obviously people didn’t have the right to do what they did and they did it,” Desbordes said. “It’s about the atmosphere and the environment that’s created by Cornell for us to actually be able to share knowledge and have conversation about these controversial issues.”
Unfortunately, students in the SJP chapter feels they are no longer able to take part in debate on campus due to the vandalism of their display:
Desbordes added that he and other members of SJP may choose to pursue other methods of getting the word out in the future due to the vandalism.
“Each time we try to go through the channels that are offered to us in the University, we get this kind of repression, which obviously does not make us keen to keep using these channels in the formal way,” he said.
Desbordes told the Sun, “I feel like it’s ridiculous, but at the same time it was not unexpected.” At a university that commits itself to free speech, as Cornell does, students should be able to express their opinions on campus without expecting to be censored. Indeed, Cornell’s “Campus Code of Conduct” specifically states:
It shall be a violation of this Title: … to interfere with or attempt to interfere with the lawful exercise of freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of peaceable assembly, or other right of an individual … .
Too often, however, this provision rings hollow at Cornell. In 2008, Cornell Coalition for Life (CCFL), a pro-life student group, placed six posters detailing fetal development in the Engineering Quad. In just an hour, the signs were confiscated by an official who claimed the school “had an ‘unwritten policy’ that prevented ‘opinionated displays’ on the quad.” Apparently, censorship moves quickly at Cornell.
Fortunately, the campus police intervened in that matter and returned the signs to the students, but not before the same administrator told students she planned to get the supposed “unwritten policy” against student speech in writing.
Although some members of the Cornell community fail to understand the value of free speech, the Sun’s editorial board offers a strong defense of open discourse on campus:
We at The Sun believe that controversial ideas are not to be feared, but respected and vigorously debated. Surely, uninhibited discourse is indispensable to our cherished institution of higher learning. With this in mind, we encourage the University to take a proactive role in protecting speech on campus. Further, we urge all members of the University community to respect channels that have been established to encourage expression and conversation.
Cornell administrators should heed the Sun’s advice and take an active role in ensuring the protection of student expression by investigating this incident of vandalism and warning students that such acts of censorship will not be tolerated. Additionally, by eliminating its four “yellow light” speech codes, Cornell’s administration could set a positive example for its students and show that student expression has value on campus.