March 2, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Mitch McBride: In His Own Words

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What is free speech? We often proclaim its importance, but rarely is it defined. Free speech is when everyone, yes everyone, has the ability to speak and be heard respectfully. Shouting down speakers we disagree with is antithetical to free speech. In an academic environment such as Cornell, it is of fundamental importance to engage in various debates and to allow for a variety of opinions. This is how knowledge is created. For those who disagree with lecturers, allowing them to speak is how misguided beliefs can be brought to face the test of reason.

In defending free speech, true free speech, and in trying to assist in the upholding of the Campus Code of Conduct, I videotaped protesters who were trying to stop Michael Johns, a co-founder of the Tea Party, from expressing his viewpoints. I videotaped them as they were clearly violating the Campus Code of Conduct, a point to which the protestors themselves later admitted, and I wanted to gain evidence of their actions. I would normally reserve myself and expect the proper authorities to take judicial action, but from my role as chair of the Codes and Judicial Committee in conversation with the judicial offices of the University, I learned that the police are not directly charged with enforcing the Code;rather, the police merely act for public order and safety. It is the responsibility of every member of the community to make sure community members adhere to the Code. Additionally, I have noticed what I believe to be a failure of the administration to enforce the Code itself. The administration does not want to engage in conflict with protesters. Senior members of the judicial process have confirmed this fact with me.

The protesters have mounted a smear campaign of character assassination against me because I was the first person to ever really stand up and speak out about the imbecility of their improper actions. They have claimed that I invoked my authority as an elected official to gain authority while videotaping them. While I did mention that I was chair of the Codes and Judicial Committee, this was only in response to their question of what specifically I was elected to and how I knew what the requirements of the Code were related to protesting.

Many people advised me that it would have been in my best political interest to apologize, so I would not be removed as chair of the CJC. While it would have been in my best interest politically, it would have been a lie — I do not regret any of my actions. I simply videotaped a violation of the Code in order to uphold free speech on campus, and answered the protestors’ question truthfully and in a straightforward manner. One might think this failure to apologize is unreasonable, but sometimes the truth is not naturally pleasing to our psychological drives to compromise.

This scuffle illustrates a broader and more important point. If conservative students were protesting the mere ability of a liberal lecturer to speak, the campus would find their actions despicable. But the reverse, which regularly occurs, does not seem to bother the community. Many people simply claim that “fascists” should not be allowed to speak and this is the end of it. For liberals, I would suggest they look up the word “liberal.” It represents an openness to ideas and opinions. As an academic community we must hear from those whose perspectives differ from our own. We must have more faculty on campus, for example, that represent these distinct viewpoints. I sponsored a resolution that would have promoted ideological diversity and free speech. The SA voted it down, and a week later, with no hint of irony, decried my actions on the basis that they prohibited free speech and hampered the intellectual diversity of campus community members. Diversity of thought is part of diversity, whether liberals want it to be or not. On the other hand, I do concede that we must allow for protests in order to hear protesters’ opinions as well. I have consistently supported respectful and legal protests in all of my time in governance at Cornell.

We must practice what we preach. While we claim to adhere to due process before issuing a verdict, the University Assembly had motions to remove me before even hearing my perspective. The Sun articles were extremely powerful in shaping people’s opinions, which were hard to change after being framed in such a negative way. The University Assembly almost didn’t let witnesses speak who supported me, and they did not review the video of the incident before making a decision to remove me. This undeniably shows how the decision of the University Assembly was purely political. Members were upset that I stood up against protestors, even though it was completely within my rights, and some have admitted that privately. Many have admitted that I did not do anything “technically” wrong, but the mere fact that I didn’t apologize was the reason they removed me, as a few protesters had their feelings hurt that I videotaped them. I remain firm and content with my decision to not apologize. I will not apologize for defending free speech and the truth, and I will continue to record and report instances where I see Code violations.

I was removed for defending free speech, upholding the Campus Code of Conduct and not allowing the ignorance of a few ruin the intellectual inquiry of many. If that’s a sin, I’m a sinner.


Mitch McBride is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is a member of the University Assembly. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester. 

17 thoughts on “GUEST ROOM | Mitch McBride: In His Own Words

  1. Re. not caring about seeing the video: the decision to remove you was predetermined. Cornell makes a lot of moves based on politics rather than fact. They simply remove the people who they think might create trouble for them. I am happy that you are standing up for yourself, Mitch.

  2. Apparently a “representative of the JA and Title IX office said that various Constitutional rights (like examining accusers and questioning witnesses) do not apply to Cornell students”, and now here, a good guy gets removed for protecting free speech. (Link for the quote is below)

    Cornell is trying hard to not follow the constitution, seems like. Evidently, hardcore liberals are going crazy.

  3. Free speech is a freedom every American is entitled to, you’re correct on that. But I think you’re wrong about liberals being foremost concerned about their own opinions and repressing any others. Liberalism, to me, isn’t about upholding the abstract ideals of diversity and tolerance, a notion you use to point out hypocrisy. It’s about dismantling the horrifically entrenched systems of oppression. When other “diverse” opinions completely deny the existence of these systems, which runs counter to objective facts, then there’s no possibility for meaningful dialogue. Worst is when these baseless arguments degrade into hateful vitriol (Milo). I would personally have a conversation with anyone about issues that hold opinions different than mine. However, if those opinions are based on falsehoods, then there’s no way I can engage with that.

    Also, I really don’t have any sympathy for conservatives in the academic world. Academics has always been a liberal sphere, and people literally become more liberal as they get educated and become aware of the oppression I point out above and the massive reform needed to confront it. Conservatives, even ultra-conservatives, are the ones now in power because they currently run the federal government and most state governments. They are the ones with the authority to enact policies affecting every single American. Why should Cornell take steps to make room for conservatism when they already have clout where it matters most? If anything, shouldn’t academics be a counterweight or a check on blatant conservative ideology in the highest office of the land?

        • Is your point that you are a moron? You did not need me to prove that. You did quite well yourself. The ignorance in your comment is overwhelming. But keep thinking that way. It was the reaction to people like you that elected Trump.

    • So should Cornell change professors if a Democrat is elected president in the next election? Why wasn’t there a Conservative counterbalance (in terms of professors) when Obama was president?
      I myself am not Conservative, but I do see a need to have other viewpoints represented.

    • You seemed fairly rational until “people literally become more liberal as they get educated and become aware of the oppression…” This is not backed by any data. Conservatives in general go to work for think tanks instead of universities, precisely because of the ridiculous climate on college campuses.

  4. Why aren’t you holding the free speech of the protesters in as high regard as that of Michael Johns? I understand that you viewed them as violating the Code of Conduct, which, having read the CCC I agree with to an extent, but the point that is hypocritical for me here is that, on top of that, you also criticize them for obstructing free speech. You seem to hold “free speech” to mean “listening calmly to all viewpoints” instead of its actual meaning of protecting citizens from government recourse for what they say. When you do this, you start down a slippery slope where any protest or counter-protest or counter-counter-protest (etc.) is defined as violating free speech, as opposed to what it actually is: partaking of it.

    • My understanding is that Mitch filmed the protesters. He did not attempt to drown them out. Do you see the difference? I guess not.

  5. I think I have a few points of contention with Mr. McBride and some of those commenting here.

    First, free speech does not require parties to listen respectfully to each other. Free speech is the idea that parties (generally the government) not use force to silence each other. I suspect this is because the employment of force to silence speech can remove the debate from the public (for instance: seizure of undesirable material and incarceration of the publisher prevents it from circulating; the threat of future violence prevents ideas from being voiced). Regardless of the rationale, however, the fact remains that loud, forceful protest and vicious invective were employed by many of the framers of the Constitution.

    This leads to the second point, which is less pedantic: Mr. McBride’s article fails to address what should be the central issue of his removal: that his actions in response to the protesters alleged violations of the campus code *appeared* an awful lot like an attempt to officially silence. The distinction is perhaps between an abusive attempt to coerce and one sanctioned by the campus code (as the campus code’s very punishments are coercive, albeit towards a beneficial end). Regardless of his intent, then, the facts admitted demonstrate a situation that could be easily misconstrued.

    This alone should probably warrant at least a conciliatory tone, if not an apology. Assuming Mr. McBride’s innocence of intent, it is nevertheless the case that his actions could easily have unintended consequences for those members of the protest not violating the campus code. It is for this he should soften his rhetoric. Further, sincerity could be demonstrated by an apology and a request for guidance from the administration: how should a member of the student assembly respond when faced with such a situation in the future.

    I must stress that I do not condemn Mr. McBride for making the video: if the campus code was indeed being violated at the time, it seems a rational response to the situation. Nevertheless, his reaction to these developments, especially this piece, are unproductive even if they are understandably human.

    It may be argued that any future guidance would be too limited in scope and frequency of application to warrant attention by future assembly members. I think, however, that as a rule applying to only assembly members, and as one which can be generalized to “How should SA members respond to code violations in their presence, given that their official positions distort perception of them as members of the community more generally?” it would not be too odious to address. Such guidance may already exist; I am not familiar with the rules dictating SA members’ conduct.

    A subtle point about the right to face your accusers and other constitutional provisions mentioned by a comment above (at least, I think it’s subtle, since I took forever to appreciate the distinction): those provisions were put in place to prevent false positives when denying subjects (both citizens and aliens within our borders) of their property and freedom. There was (and still is) also the belief that cross-examination is exceptionally useful for determining both a witness’s honesty and how their testimony may have distorted what actually happened. Because the stakes in university administrative proceedings (arguably, as it seems to me the resulting pillory could be very damaging) are lower, and because the Constitution only restricts government behavior, not private parties in most circumstances, it is perhaps not egregious (or stupid) that the universities have come to follow different standards. The point I am trying to convey here is that (in my opinion) only policy concerns should dominate our discussion of JA proceedings, not constitutional deference; as I said earlier, it took me a while to come to this conclusion.

    And finally, one point of (much) more contentious opinion:
    “It is the responsibility of every member of the community to make sure community members adhere to the Code. Additionally, I have noticed what I believe to be a failure of the administration to enforce the Code itself. The administration does not want to engage in conflict with protesters. Senior members of the judicial process have confirmed this fact with me.”

    Presumably, the cost of enforcing the Code in these situations outweighs the benefits, hence the administration’s reluctance to enforce it. For the moment, I am assuming that the administration nefariously has the necessary proof but has chosen to ignore it (as few people would dispute the prerogative of the university not to prosecute when there is insufficient evidence). In this light, recording becomes an attempt to galvanize the administration into enforcement. While there is a strong argument that requiring enforcement of even an unpopular law is the ethical thing to do, because this is a code both implemented and enforced by the university, it seems hubristic to attempt to usurp the university’s discretion regarding the code’s enforcement. It is one thing to argue to the administration the benefits and detriments of a policy; to present evidence that such a policy should be enforced, even though it has unofficially been stricken (by non-enforcement). It is another to, as I expressed above, attempt the required enforcement of a rule widely unenforced (and it would, at least in my mind, be unfair to suddenly begin enforcing the rule again–presumably in response to such an undertaking–without first notifying the student body).

    This may very well not be the case here; perhaps I am misinterpreting the situation as Mr. McBride has presented it, or he may have expressed himself inartfully in places. Either way, I will happily debate any of my assertions with interested parties.

  6. Where’s the video?! The evidence speaks volumes; show everyone who the real bullies are and spread the video of those despicable protestors.

    SA is a biased and corrupt organization. No sense trying to beat them at their own game.

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