Corning Community College Learning Center – Wikimedia Commons
In recent weeks, Corning Community College (CCC), in upstate New York, canceled one in a series of events planned for CCC’s "Sex Week"—a speech by writer and adult film performer Conner Habib entitled "Sex, Culture, & Sexuality." Habib was ultimately able to speak at the local public library instead of on campus. But Brandon Griewank, the initial event organizer and president of CCC’s LGBT student group, Equal, has shared his story with the press in an attempt to ensure that other students will be prepared to deal with similar situations in the future. While cancellation of similarly themed speeches and events are all too familiar to FIRE, the details of this episode make it especially valuable as a learning experience for students and administrators alike.
First, this is an example of the most harmful type of censorship—viewpoint-based discrimination. CCC President Katherine Douglas said that she would not let "porn rights and LGBT rights become intertwined on her campus." As Habib noted in an article for BuzzFeed, he was planning on speaking about sex and culture broadly, rather than focusing on pornography. But despite her support for the rest of the Sex Week events, Douglas evidently decided she would not allow a lecture by someone who currently works in the porn industry; Habib’s identity as a writer and educator did nothing to ameliorate his status for the CCC administration. It is worth noting, too, that this is not a case where an administrator punished someone for speech after it occurred, but rather a prior restraint on a particular person speaking. Prior restraints in particular are almost never justified by a reason compelling enough to overcome the broad protections of the First Amendment.
Second, CCC reportedly employed some pretty strange tactics in its attempt to keep the situation quiet. After President Douglas’s initial meetings with Griewank and Equal advisors to discuss the event’s cancellation, Dean of Student Development Donald Heins and Director of Student Life Nancy Agan reportedly asked Griewank into a private room to meet alone and without any advance notice. Heins then allegedly told Griewank that he was not to help Habib arrange a lecture off-campus as an alternative to the canceled event, nor was he to speak with the press about the situation. Habib told BuzzFeed that Heins went even further, calling Corning-area hotels in order to determine whether Habib would be staying in town and speaking to local sponsors of Sex Week in an apparent effort to discourage their support. Students have also claimed (and CCC has denied) that any students were told not to attend the off-campus event. But whether or not this direction was explicit, Dean Heins went shockingly far in trying to limit what Griewank, Habib, and even private businesses did off of CCC’s campus.
Griewank said that during their meeting Heins told him: "I hope you grasp this … that this issue is bigger than you and bigger than Equal." Indeed, this issue is bigger than Brandon Griewank, and bigger than Equal. The problem of college administrators censoring particular viewpoints and trying to control behavior beyond the boundaries of the campus affects us all. Corning Community College has illustrated that the strategies schools use to stifle free expression are sometimes multi-pronged and bordering on desperate. We can hope that one day all school administrators will realize that it is their job to facilitate open conversations, not hinder them. Unfortunately until then, students must be prepared to fight against every crazy ploy that a school can manufacture.