Cornell students discussed a potential ban to “hate speech” in a community input session with the Student Assembly on Sunday evening following a series of racially-charged events on campus in recent weeks.
Those events include a student who said he was called the N-word and assaulted on Friday and a resident of the Latino Living Center who reported hearing “build a wall” chants from a nearby fraternity earlier this month.
The forum in eHub focused on providing students with a space to voice concerns and brainstorm ways that the Cornell community could start addressing underlying tensions that these incidents have brought to light.
Although the official purpose of the meeting was to discuss a possible change to the Campus Code of Conduct banning hate speech, organizers and attendees emphasized that their larger goal was not just to modify a specific policy, but to change campus culture as a whole — something attendees said would be trickier, but more permanent.
“One of the things we need to do if we’re discussing a policy like this is define what ‘hate speech’ means,” said Olivia Corn ’19. “One of the reasons that a lot of the campus isn’t behind this is they believe the words ‘hate speech’ are too open-ended and that it could encompass way too many things.”
Varun Devatha ’19, S.A. executive vice president, added that one of his biggest concerns is how the Cornell administration might use a hypothetical hate speech clause to silence students.
“If we don’t have a clear definition of hate speech, I think that the administration could use it to censor us,” Devatha said.
“If we are going to define hate speech, our definition needs to be rooted in intimidation,” said Natalie Brown ’18.
Assemblymembers Matt Indimine ’18 and Mayra Valadez ’18, who are considering a wide variety of potential ways to limit “hate speech,” opened the meeting by bringing up initiatives proposed by President Martha Pollack on Sunday evening in response to the Collegetown assault and other recent events. The statement consisted of a series of initiatives designed to improve the campus climate.
Valadez said she was “extremely grateful” that Pollack proposed “some cool structural changes,” but said more needs to be done.
“It has to be a complete cultural change of this community if we want real community change,” Valadez said.
Many attendees wondered how one of Pollack’s proposals — a presidential task force charged with examining and addressing bigotry on campus — would operate, saying they hoped it would foster trust and accountability between students and the administration.
Another attendee Jesse Goldberg, grad, elaborated on how any potential definition of “hate speech” also needed to incorporate historical power dynamics.
“An analysis of diversity can’t just be about how people are different, but how differences are embedded in power structures and how speech is embedded in power structures,” Goldberg said. “If I’m in a class and I feel intimidated because my viewpoint is ‘All Lives Matter,’ I feel intimidated because the rest of class doesn’t [agree]. That’s not the same as a black student who feels intimidated because he/she isn’t valued in the community. Intimidation and power have to go together.”
Aryeh Krischer ’19 brought up the need to reframe the issue by going beyond discouraging hate speech and rather focusing on encouraging an atmosphere of kindness and inclusivity.
“We’ve talked a lot about how to combat hate speech … but it’s not enough to just say we need to stop doing something — we need to start doing something,” he said. “Yes, we need to create a culture where hate speech is unacceptable, but we also need to create a culture where people are kind.”
Attendees said the burden of reforming the campus climate should not be placed on marginalized communities who they said are most affected by hateful actions.
“One of the things that was said earlier that I really want to echo is to ensure that we aren’t placing the burden on people of color,” Devatha said. “The other thing I want to keep a careful eye on is that we approach this from a perspective of intersectionality.”
The “elephant in the room,” discussed by attendees toward the end of the meeting, was the relationship between hate crimes and what some called “frat culture.”
“I’ve been hearing a lot of conversation about what we can do when we’re talking to the administration and in policy implementation, but I just want to say that it’s time also for fraternity members to step up in their individual chapters and start making those first connections, those first conversations, those first steps,” said Cole Johnston ’20. “It needs to happen in your community, it needs to happen now.”
One of Pollack’s initiatives directs leaders of the Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils to “develop a substantive and meaningful diversity training and education program for all their members, to be implemented before the spring recruitment.” Black Students United members said this was a proposal they pushed for in a meeting with the dean of students on Friday.
Zoe Kalos ’18, executive vice president of programming of the Panhellenic Council, said she will be leading this initiative for the PHC and attended Sunday’s community input session.
“We are doing what we can as a Tri-Council to work on taking action following the deeply disturbing events on campus,” Kalos said. “I agree with all of you that none of these actions are acceptable or should be tolerated in any way.”
Kalos mentioned that the the diversity training and education program would be restructured to focus on understanding privilege, communication and allyship in the Greek community, Cornell’s campus and society as a whole.
“We are working on making Greek life more inclusive for existing members and diverse for future member classes,” Kalos said. “But we also all need to understand the responsibility that we have as Greek members on this campus, the privileges that many of us have, and how a lot of these actions reflect a broader, problematic social system.”
“We are dedicated to following through to the best of our abilities and encourage anyone who wants to have their voice heard in this reform to reach out to us,” she added.
Despite the heavy nature of the topics being discussed, there was a general sense of hope in the room. Attendees appeared optimistic that by working together and engaging in difficult conversations that they could begin the process of implementing meaningful change across campus.
“I really want to emphasize that I don’t think this is the last of any discussion,” said Assemblymember Joe Anderson ’20. “We’re not focusing on a policy, we’re focused on how Cornell feels for everyone. Cornell was built upon an egalitarian principle, let’s actually have a culture that feels egalitarian.”
“This is not just the need to create a policy that changes the campus code of conduct, this is a group of students who came together who represent diverse interests from across campus. Whether you’re president of Interfaith Council or president of the Cornell Democrats or part of a fraternity, you have come into this space because you realize there needs to be a change at Cornell,” Anderson continued.
Assemblymember TJ Ball ’19 said anyone interested in taking part in further discussions about the potential policy or receiving updates about Pollack’s task force should contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to an email list.