Table of Contents

Cornell’s Decorating Rules: You Can Put Up Anything You Want As Long As It’s a Snowflake

Cornell University’s Department of Environmental Health & Safety recently issued fire safety guidance for holiday decorations with sensible prohibitions against hazards such as “combustible decorations” and burning candles. Nothing to concern FIRE, one would think. But as one astute FIRE supporter recently found, restrictions on free expression can pop up in the strangest places. Sure enough, the final section of the guidance veers off from physical safety into rules apparently designed to ensure some kind of ephemeral, emotional safety.

The introduction to the guidelines notes that “more than 25 religious organizations” operate at Cornell and that many of them “do not have a religious holiday between November and January.” In addition, many members of the Cornell community do not practice any religion, prompting the university to “encourage its members to respect differences in religious practices during this holiday season.” Nothing wrong with that either.

But there is a lot wrong with the actual guidelines that purport to reflect Cornell’s commitment to diversity and the University Assembly guidelines:


Winter Holiday Displays/Decorations that are Consistent with Cornell’s Commitment to Diversity and the University Assembly Guidelines:  

  • Snowflakes  
  • Trees (in accordance with Fire Safety Guidelines) decorated with snowflakes and other non-religious symbols

Winter Holiday Displays/Decorations that are Consistent with University Assembly Guidelines But Should be Basis of Dialogue Within Unit or Living Area  

  • Trees decorated with bows, garland and lights (in accordance with Fire Safety Guidelines)  
  • Wreaths with bows (in accordance with Fire Safety Guidelines)  
  • Combination of snowflakes, (in accordance with Fire Safety Guidelines), Santa Claus figure, and dreidel  
  • Holly

Winter Holiday Displays/Decorations that are NOT Consistent with Either University Assembly Guidelines or the University’s Commitment to Diversity and Inclusiveness

  • Nativity scene  
  • Menorah  
  • Angels  
  • Mistletoe  
  • Stars at the top of trees  
  • Crosses  
  • Star of David

Cornell is a private and land-grant university, but it professes a “deep commitment to academic freedom and a belief that such freedom is essential to creativity and innovation.” In addition, its “strategic plan stresses the importance of creative collaborations that emerge from the ‘bottom up’ rather than from the ‘top down.’” These guidelines certainly don’t match up with those commitments. Nor do the guidelines explain how telling some students not to share symbols important to them supports Cornell’s core value of “treat[ing] all individuals with dignity, respect, and fairness.”

The logic behind the guidelines is also not immediately apparent. Why should a tree decorated with snowflakes be acceptably “inclusive,” yet a tree with bows, garlands, or lights require dialogue—and what is that conversation supposed to entail? But more mystifying is the premise that in order to be inclusive, Cornell’s administration wants to exclude a random list of primarily Christian and Jewish symbols.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines inclusive as: “Taking a great deal or everything within its scope; comprehensive.” So, by definition, being inclusive cannot mean reducing seasonal decoration to its lowest common denominator, which in this case appears to be a snowflake. Yet that is exactly what the guidelines require for students to be “inclusive”: members of the Cornell community must “focus on the winter season rather than a particular holiday” and narrow their horizons accordingly.

It is certainly appropriate for Cornell as an institution not to favor Judeo-Christian traditions over any other. But it is quite different for the university to issue blanket guidelines telling individual students that they cannot express their beliefs in their living areas. Discouraging students from sharing their traditions with their peers prevents learning and undermines Cornell’s claim that it aims to promote cultural awareness and cross-cultural understanding. If the students themselves, after discussion, decide to limit decorations to snowflakes, that’s their choice. But where does it end? Would Hindu students be limited in their decorative options during Diwali? Or is the Indian festival of lights OK, whereas the Jewish one is not?

And if the idea is that students know everything there is to know about Christmas and Hanukkah because they are mainstream religions, one need look no further than the guideline drafters themselves to disprove that theory. The guidelines prohibit the display of angels, although they (or similar beings) are found in many religions outside of Christianity and Judaism, including Islam, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism. Conversely, holly, which is consistent with the guidelines, has been appropriated by Christianity to also represent the crown of thorns.

The point is not to play trivial pursuits with holiday imagery, but to call attention to the fact that Cornell’s misguided attempt to protect college students from offense has chilled the expression of many students on campus, which is antithetical to any concept of tolerance.

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.