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‘Building knowledge and inspiring discussion’: Cornell stands up for free speech, announces university-wide free expression initiative

Cornell clocktower


Amid mounting pressure from free speech supporters, Cornell President Martha E. Pollack announced this week a university-wide initiative to explore the theme of free expression and academic freedom throughout the 2023-24 academic year. Though Cornell has a troubling track record with free speech, we’re optimistic that its increased attention to the crucial role of free expression and academic freedom will benefit the campus community. 

Most of the recent free speech violations at Cornell were initiated by students: In November,  students shouted down Ann Coulter, and in April 2023, the student assembly attempted to compel faculty speech. In light of these events, the president’s plan to engage students on the topic of free speech may be just what the doctor ordered.

“Learning from difference, learning to engage with difference and learning to communicate across difference are key parts of a Cornell education. Free expression and academic freedom are the bedrock not just of the university, but of democracy.”

Pollack issued a strong statement highlighting the importance of free expression, writing “Learning from difference, learning to engage with difference and learning to communicate across difference are key parts of a Cornell education. Free expression and academic freedom are the bedrock not just of the university, but of democracy.” Appropriately, the statement highlights the importance of engaging with controversial ideas. Such engagement is a way to handle differences in a pluralistic society, where individuals may disagree over religion, politics, and ethics.

But this victory did not happen in a vacuum. FIRE and our allies in support of free expression have been hard at work for years advocating for free speech reform at Cornell.

In November, student protesters disrupted the Network of enlightened Women student group’s event featuring conservative commentator Ann Coulter. Although the dean of students warned event attendees that disruptors would be removed and followed through with that promise, audience members continuously disrupted the event so substantially that it was cut short after 30 minutes. At the time, FIRE urged Cornell to implement educational programming to teach students about its commitment to free speech to ensure they don’t disrupt future events.

And last month, when Cornell’s student assembly unanimously voted to pass a resolution urging the administration to require faculty to provide content warnings before students face potentially triggering material in class, FIRE wrote Cornell calling on it to reject the student assembly’s resolution because such a policy would infringe on faculty members’ academic freedom to determine what to teach and how to teach it. Once again, Cornell stood up for free speech, responding to the resolution with a resounding “no” and telling students that the resolution’s recommendations would “infringe on our core commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, and are at odds with the goals of a Cornell education.”

Overlook of Cornell University Campus from Uris Library.

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Cornell administrators seem to get it, but the student body’s grasp on free speech and academic freedom is more tenuous. That’s why we have continuously put boots on the ground to educate the Cornell community on free speech, and why we have urged Cornell to do the same.

In 2021, FIRE hosted a webinar titled, “Cornell University and Free Speech: an Unauthorized Look at the Campus Climate,” to provide alumni with information about the free speech climate at Cornell. We spoke with a current student and professor and walked through how alumni could bring reform to campus, focusing specifically on orientation training. 

After the webinar, alumni activists began demanding the university uphold its students’ and faculty members’ right to free expression and wrote a letter asking the university to add a free expression training module to its new student orientation. As a result, President Pollack centered her welcome address at 2022’s student convocation around communicating across differences, free speech, and civil discourse.

Now alumni have banded together to hold multiple free speech-oriented events, including a recent speech by FIRE Executive Vice President Nico Perrino called, “Why Should We Defend Speech We Hate?” Perrino addressed the elephant in the room — the recent Coulter shoutdown — from the same lecture hall where the shoutdown happened and provided insight into the benefits of speaking to those whose views differ from our own. 

Ultimately, the efficacy of FIRE’s work dramatically increases when alumni, students, and faculty lift up their voices in favor of free expression. We’ve seen an increasing number of these success stories in the past few months from MIT to Davidson College, where alumni have successfully taken action to protect free speech at their alma maters. FIRE commends Cornell for heeding free speech advocates’ calls and implementing educational programming to promote a culture of free expression on campus. 

We hope Cornell will soon become a model for institutions across the country, showing by example why educating students and faculty on their expressive rights benefits the community as a whole. 

To learn more about the alumni movement and get involved in free speech advocacy at your alma mater, subscribe to FIRE’s Alumni Network. FIRE is happy to help with implementing this program and ensuring free expression thrives on campus.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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