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Cornell concedes small changes to otherwise substantially restrictive new speech policies

Cornell’s ‘Year of Free Expression’ is shaping up as a mixed bag — at best.  
Cornell University sign in black and white

Jay Yuan /

Cornell University has repeatedly demonstrated that its lofty rhetoric about the importance of free expression and open inquiry is just words. While the latest movement on its recently adopted “Interim Expressive Activity Policy” may suggest one positive change in direction, it’s too soon to tell for certain. 

Late last month, Cornell summarily dismissed FIRE’s concerns about two new university policies: faculty guidance limiting political speech in an affront to academic freedom, and the Interim Expressive Activity Policy, which imposes prior restraints on student demonstrations and postings. 

But on March 11, amid widespread criticism, the university publicly announced in a campus-wide email several changes to the Interim Expressive Activity Policy. Those changes include one positive substantive revision, establishing that pre-registering large outdoor demonstrations — a provision FIRE specifically criticized — will not be required. At the same time, and disappointingly, Cornell indicated the change may only be temporary. 

Worse, with the exception of the change to the registration rule for outdoor demonstrations, other amendments are largely cosmetic, and at best merely clarify vague or confusing language. Cornell also specifically declined to amend requirements for pre-approval for most uses of amplified sound, and for identifying the sponsoring group on all posters — even though critics protesting the interim policy have made these rules their primary target.

Let’s recap how we got here, see where the changes leave us, and revisit the big picture. 

Cornell targets faculty and student rights with a new political speech directive and a new student expression policy

As recounted at greater length in our post linked immediately above, on Jan. 22, a graduate teaching assistant canceled the first session of their literature seminar, citing “solidarity with collective calls for a Global Strike for Palestine.” The next day, Cornell’s provost issued guidance to faculty and instructors to “avoid the use of the classroom, scheduling, or other academic activities to advance personal political views.”

Cornell University homepage on a monitor screen through a magnifying glass

Cornell falls short with new expression policy and guidance on faculty political speech


Cornell’s ‘Year of Free Expression’ turns out to be anything but.

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Then, before the week was through, Cornell released an expansive Interim Expressive Activity Policy with provisions regulating outdoor demonstrations and posting flyers on campus. The former required organizers to register at least two days in advance for outdoor events of more than 50 people at many campus locations, nearly eliminating spontaneous demonstrations in response to recent or unfolding events. The latter, which requires students to obtain administrative permission before posting flyers anywhere on campus other than specially designated bulletin boards, notably failed to identify the locations of those bulletin boards, and instead directed students to contact the building coordinator.

On Feb. 8, FIRE wrote Cornell to express concerns with the new restrictions. We explained how the faculty speech directive targets an overly broad array of classroom speech, thereby potentially chilling faculty’s willingness to engage with students on political issues — even when doing so is pedagogically legitimate — in violation of both the Faculty Statement on Academic Freedom and Responsibility that Cornell adopted in 1960, and the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. We also explained that the Interim Expressive Activity Policy imposed overly restrictive prior restraints on both large outdoor demonstrations and on student postings. 

On Feb. 26, Cornell rejected FIRE’s assessment, claiming the guidance on classroom political speech “was an entirely appropriate message to remind faculty of their ongoing responsibilities to maintain an inclusive learning environment, consistent with AAUP policy statements and the Policy Statement on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech and Expression.” It also called FIRE’s concern that the guidance will chill faculty’s pedagogically legitimate classroom political speech “misplaced,” but offered no explanation why that is so. 

As for the Interim Expressive Activity Policy, Cornell claimed it does not require registration for large outdoor demonstrations, but rather merely “encourages” students to register the events, which, Cornell says, “does not infringe First Amendment values.”

Except . . . the word the policy actually uses is not “encouraged,” but “expected” — which a reasonable student would likely understand to mean registration is required, not optional: 

Cornell University Interim Expressive Activity Policy screenshot

Cornell also asserted that requiring administrative approval for all flyer postings outside the specially designated bulletin boards is a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction, yet it failed to address the need to amend the policy to actually identify the locations of the available bulletin boards. That lack of specificity makes it difficult for students to comply, and will likely chill speech on campus.

Cornell announces changes to student expression policy

But then, on March 11, Cornell seemed to budge. It publicly announced small changes to the Interim Expressive Activity Policy that reflected what the university wrote in responding to FIRE, removing the word “expected” from the outdoor demonstrations provision to clarify that pre-registration of large gatherings is strongly encouraged but not required. 

This is a welcome and necessary amendment — but one that may not, unfortunately, be permanent. Because even in making the change, Cornell noted most of its peer institutions require registration for outdoor events, and as such, it believes “broader discussion of the consequences, both positive and negative, of such a requirement” is needed before finalizing the policy.

As the university prepares the final version of the expression policy for release this coming fall, it still has time to course correct.

And while Cornell also amended the posting rules to clarify pre-approval is not required when posting to specially designated bulletin boards, it again failed to identify their locations. At the same time, it announced the policy would continue to require all posters to include the name of the sponsoring organization or individual, despite critics calling for that requirement’s removal. In short, the substance of the posting rules remains unchanged overall.  

Cornell’s ‘Year of Free Expression’ is anything but

When President Martha E. Pollack announced that 2023–24 would be Cornell’s “Year of Free Expression,” she explained its signifigance both to the university, and to society at large.

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

The post-October 7 upheaval on college campuses has tested many universities, but that challenge also offered Cornell a unique opportunity to capitalize on its “Year of Free Expression” by modeling what it means to live up to such a commitment in the face of controversy. Instead Cornell has thus far shown its promises were empty, and that its principles are mere window dressing. As the university prepares the final version of the expression policy for release this coming fall, it still has time to course correct.

Time will tell whether it takes that opportunity.  

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 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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