Panel Explores Free Speech and Religion

September 23, 2009 12:00 am0 comments
Elisabeth Rosen

In an attempt to address the issue of religious discrimination in the Cornell community, Cornell United Religious Work sponsored an open dialogue yesterday afternoon in Sage Chapel that turned into a heated debate about individual rights.
The dialogue was partly intended as a response to last spring’s controversy over student funding for religious organizations. When the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship asked one of its members to step down from a leadership position last spring after he embraced the fact that he was gay, the resulting furor led many to question whether Cornell should subsidize student groups that discriminate based on race, gender or sexual orientation.
But both men who spoke in yesterday’s dialogue agreed that the religious nature of such groups, coupled with the Constitution’s protections for freedom of religion, makes the issue difficult to resolve.
“People have the right to do what they believe their god requires them to do,” said Dr. Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “It’s the responsibility of our society to protect that fundamental right.”
His fellow panelist, Prof. Steven Shiffrin, law, agreed that religious groups should be allowed to choose their own leaders, just like other student groups. He also pointed out that as a private institution, Cornell is not bound by the First Amendment. But he questioned whether the University should continue to fund organizations that discriminate.
“What about the Ku Klux Klan?” Shiffrin asked. “If they discriminate against Catholics, Jews and African-Americans, can they still get [Student Assembly] funds?”
Haynes responded by drawing a line between the public arena and a college campus.
“I think of course they should have the right to speak in the public square,” Haynes said. But it’s “a different matter” at a university, where students should feel safe from discrimination.
The two men were sharply divided on the issue of regulating hate speech. While Haynes spoke out against such regulations, arguing that bans on free speech have “hurt more than they have helped civility,” Shiffrin advocated prohibiting hate speech in the student code.
“When I think of the students, particularly freshmen, who are subjected to degrading speech, they’re already scared to death. That is not something that should be tolerated,” Shiffrin said.
Haynes countered that rather than restricting free speech, Cornell should welcome all students’ opinions.
“College campuses should be the last place where we want to start telling people what speech is bad and what speech is good,” Haynes said.
Since Cornell’s earliest days, officials have emphasized that free speech plays a vital role in the University’s mission.
“Absolute freedom is the soul of the institution,” Cornell’s third President Jacob Schurman said in his 1897 annual address. “Every teacher is expected … to communicate to others his own belief and convictions or else answer to a charge of sacrilege.”
But despite Cornell’s support for academic free speech, the school has been criticized in recent years for the restrictions it places on individual liberties. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education gave the school a “red light” rating. In a talk he gave earlier this month, William Creeley, the organization’s director of legal and public advocacy, pointed out that more than one University policy “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”[img_assist|nid=38296|title=Free speech|desc=Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, speaks in Sage Chapel yesterday as part of discussion about the free speech and religious liberty.|link=node|align=center|width=336|height=252]
“There’s a difference between academic freedom and free speech,” said Prof. Richard Polenberg, history, who teaches a course in the constitution.
In the 1960s, when students at universities across the country took dramatic actions to defend their Constitutional right to free speech, the Willard Straight Takeover thrust the Cornell community into the midst of an intense debate. In a more recent controversy, administrators from the College of Engineering took down signs put up by the Cornell Coalition for Life, a student group opposed to abortion. The signs featured pictures of a fetus named “Elena” along with “Elena’s” thoughts. The Cornell Police insisted that the signs be reinstated.
Although yesterday’s dialogue was sparsely attended — approximately 20 people clustered into the front rows of the chapel — the debate sparked strong reactions.
“Hatred to me goes against Christianity,” said Larry Eugene Bardroff II ’12, a member of the Navigators, a Christian student group. “It’s not what our conscience shows us. I don’t see a group’s necessity to say hateful things.”