April 25, 2013

LURIE-SPICER: Stifling Dissent: Exploring the Role of Protest on Campus

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What role do “Use of University Property” permits play when people are organizing a protest? When people are asked to apply for their right to free speech, who becomes privileged and who does not? Currently the University Assembly is considering a change to the Campus Code of Conduct that could greatly impact our right to free speech.

Excuse my bureaucratic language while I explain: According to current campus code, Cornell generally cannot require a permit for student protests on campus. However, the University Assembly Codes and Judicial Committee is currently considering the “Resolution to Clarify Responsible Free Expression in the Campus Code of Conduct” in which one of two proposals will be decided on. The first proposal would be consistent with the current campus code, eliminating any permit requirements for free expression outdoors, given that the safety and rights (including rights of free speech) of others and their property are respected. The second proposal, however, intensifies restrictions by forbidding any unpermitted demonstration at the same time and place as a University function or event with a permit. In both of these proposals, counter protests would be forbidden on campus. Yet how can anti-oppression activism occur if dissent is forbidden when there are oppressive events?

As a training camp for the future rich and powerful, our University is riddled with oppressive forces. Some of the students who graduate from here will lead some of the most oppressive institutions in the world. Some mathematicians will go off to design the new weapons that will kill families in Palestine. Some engineers will work for big oil companies and propel us further into a climate crisis. Some business students will work on Wall Street where they will finance these atrocities and countless others. Today, oppressive mentalities that perpetuate this greed manifest themselves within student organizations and campus events here on campus. Many students on this campus have privileges that are rooted in the oppression of others and they will try hard to protect those privileges. These acts should not go unchallenged.

Just one example of this was last semester, when Hillel and Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee (CIPAC) came out to Ho Plaza to support the bombings on Gaza citizens. Students for Justice in Palestine came out in response to elucidate the oppressive roots of their message. Sure enough, just as police evict Palestinians from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, I witnessed Cornell Police push SJP protesters off of Ho Plaza because they did not have a permit and CIPAC did. Yet, as seen in the current campus code (hyperlinked above if you are reading this online), it is not a violation for a group to be at the same outdoor location as one with a permit. Then again, it is not explicitly granted either. Therefore, it is no surprise that some members of the UA are proposing changes to the Cornell Code that would legitimize the eviction of such dissenters.

There are a number of Public Comments that have been released by UA members (also in the hyperlink above) that show a wide range of views. While some members, such as Ari Epstein, view this as a simple matter, ensuring that scheduled events do not conflict, others members like Risa Lieborwitz recognize that these changes would infringe upon our right to dissent on campus. She also points out that while we may disagree with one another, free speech protects our right to disagree, even if that means our events do not always go as planned. “Free speech means that sometimes outdoor demonstrations and counter-demonstrations may be loud and that it may be hard to hear everything.” Lieborwitz explains, “This is part of having [and] protecting heated debate…” Furthermore, without counter-protests and disruptions of oppressive events, the only permissible form of direct action would be to rally with one’s friends and make speeches among allies. While these events can excite a crowd, they are about as powerless as our Student Assembly in that they put no direct pressure on anyone. The only leverage that a mass group of people can have in dealing with an oppressive force is to directly engage with that force. It is the only way that we, as students, can de-construct the oppression as it comes to fruition on this campus

I am not saying that disruptive events and counter-protests need to be violent or destructive, although it is not my place to infringe upon anyone’s autonomy to do so. But they may be cacophonous, they may show disagreement, they may force us to question our beliefs and those we are surrounded by. What is crucial is that we show up when we notice oppression. We cannot afford to isolate resistance in the front-line communities who face oppression every day. Rather, we must resist oppressive powers where they are born, where they are most subtle and yet where they are strongest. We cannot let our classmates use their incredible skills, intellect and potential for the destruction of our planet and its people. We must be the counterforce. We will not be silenced.

Tyler-Lurie Spicer is a ­sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at til4@cornell.edu. Personal Politics appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Tyler Lurie-Spicer