June 2021 Speech Code of the Month: Cornell University

June 3, 2021

As COVID-19 vaccination rates rise across the country and the public health risk of holding large gatherings decreases, colleges will likely be reviewing their events policies for necessary changes over the summer. One school that is past due revisiting its policy is Cornell University, FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month for June.

Cornell’s policy on “Elevated Risk & High-Risk Events,” which was around long before the pandemic hit, lists various reasons students must file an “Event Registration Form” with the university in advance. 

There are some legitimate reasons why an event organizer might need to give a university notice about a particular event, like when they are planning a march on a street, and traffic will need to be shut down. But take a look at some of the factors from Cornell’s policy: 

  • Has a similar event caused any form of disruption at Cornell in the past?
  • Has a similar event caused any form of disruption on another campus?
  • Has a similar event been characterized as elevated or high risk, or problematic by any media?
  • Are there historic reasons why there may be opposition to the event?
  • Has there been litigation, including a Supreme Court case, connected to the topics of the event?

That list would allow administrators at Cornell to shut down essentially any event they want by claiming the organizer should’ve submitted an “Event Registration Form.”

Take the first two factors: If students or members of the public caused “any form of disruption” at a similar event — not even the same one! — at Cornell or another campus, the form is required. You need only take a look at FIRE’s Disinvitation Database and the range of speakers who have been disinvited or threatened with disinvitation (including Stanley Tucci, Laura Bush, Mr. Rogers, and the Dalai Lama) to realize this factor has the potential to limit an incredibly wide range of events, depending on what administrators say qualifies as “any form of disruption.”

That list would allow administrators at Cornell to shut down essentially any event they want by claiming the organizer should’ve submitted an “Event Registration Form.”

How about the next factor, requiring advance notice for events “characterized as elevated or high risk, or problematic by any media.” That means, if any media outlet — from Breitbart or OAN to the Palmer Report or Alternet — considers an event “problematic,” a student needs to submit this form in advance. This factor could discourage anything remotely controversial — maybe convenient for Cornell, but not helpful to the exchange of ideas on campus. 

The next factor asks whether there are “historic reasons why there may be opposition to the event.” I can’t think of a single protest or demonstration that wouldn’t qualify for this factor. Most protests are advocating for a particular position on an issue over another, so there are bound to be at least some who oppose any protest held on campus, whether a gun rights demonstration, a trans rights march, or a protest about Cornell’s recent controversial approval of a dual-degree program with China’s Peking University. 

Likewise, the next factor asks if there “has been litigation, including a Supreme Court case, connected to the topics of the event.” That would require anyone holding events about topics like abortion, immigration policy, and of course, free speech issues, to jump this extra hurdle. 

In order to request an event, students need to log in with their username and password, so we’re not able to view the exact parameters of the Event Registration Form. But since the guidelines to the event request process state that “[s]ome events must be registered four (4) weeks prior to the start date,” and that other events require “two (2) weeks advance registration,” we can only assume high risk events require four weeks’ notice

Cornell needs to revise its event policies to resolve the inconsistency, and make clear that events will not be subject to unreasonable burdens on the basis of content or viewpoint.

After a month of waiting, it may be too late to discuss an issue that has been characterized as “high risk” or that faced historical opposition — for example, a bill being debated in the state legislature could have been defeated at that point.

Under First Amendment standards, a college may put in place reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions on public expression in order to protect university activities from disruption. But forcing students to jump through hoops before holding subjectively “problematic” events is not a reasonable restriction. 

In another Cornell policy, students are promised the “right to free expression,” and are even told “[o]utdoor picketing, marches, rallies, and other demonstrations” are, in fact, permitted on campus, and that “[n]o university permit is required for such outdoor activities.” If this is the case, Cornell needs to revise its event policies to resolve the inconsistency, and make clear that events will not be subject to unreasonable burdens on the basis of content or viewpoint. 

Though Cornell is a private university, and thus not bound by the First Amendment, it can’t promise students the right to protest without a permit in one policy, while explaining events having to do with controversial topics need a month of lead time. 

FIRE’s Policy Reform team stands ready to assist Cornell with harmonizing these policies, and to assist any other universities currently revisiting event policies with revisions.


Schools:  Cornell University