In what some students claim was a 90-minute violation of their right to free speech, the Cornell Coalition for Life clashed with the College of Engineering administration on Wednesday morning when Dawn Warren, administrative assistant, removed the organization’s “Elena Campaign” signs from the Engineering Quad.
The CCFL is a non-partisan, pro-life advocacy group on campus. According to the CCFL, the Elena Campaign is composed of “a series of light-hearted educational signs with pictures and text detailing the biological development of an unborn child.”
Tristen Cramer ’09, former CCFL president, explained that the signs did not contain political statements, but rather “biological facts on fetal development,” including ultrasound images and text.
According to Cramer, the group put up the signs shortly before 8 a.m. on Wednesday. About an hour later, members of the group saw Warren removing the signs because she believed they were not approved by the University, despite the authorization notice that was posted on the first sign of the series. After members of the CCFL showed Warren the proper forms, she reportedly called the content of the signs “inappropriate” and removed them from the quad.
Later, members of the CCFL met with Cathy Dove, associate dean of administration for the College of Engineering, who confirmed the University approval for posting the signs. However, according to Cramer, Dove cited an “unwritten policy” in which only engineering-related signs are permitted to be posted on the Engineering Quad.
While the same signs were posted on both the Engineering and the Arts Quads, the signs on the Arts Quad were not met with any resistance.
“You can express yourself on the Arts Quad and not the Engineering Quad?” Cramer asked.
Ultimately, the signs were returned to the CCFL because the organization had, in fact, obtained proper approval. The signs remained on the Engineering Quad through Thursday.
“As an engineering student, I am surprised and disappointed that some of our staff would censor the issues that we are exposed to. In their claims that all engineering displays must be engineering related, they are severely short-changing all engineering students,” CCFL President Katherine Weible ’10 stated in a press release.
Cramer found the engineering administration’s actions “shocking.”
“As an organization, we work hard to follow the rules,” she explained, “but it seems like we were found guilty before proven innocent.”
In response to the sign situation, Tommy Bruce, vice president for University communications, said that there was “an innocent mistake made.”
The “unusual nature” of the sign content, he explained, “led [a staff member] to think that something was wrong [with the authorization].”
He continued to explain, “Things were rectified appropriately quite quickly.”
Kent Fuchs, dean of the engineering school and the recently named University Provost, sent a letter to all engineering faculty, staff and students explaining the situation.
“An ensuing discussion involving members of the CCFL, the Cornell Police, and the college administration, revealed that the organization had gone through proper channels to obtain university permission for the posting. The college administration apologized to the CCFL for the inconvenience, and their signs were immediately returned and re-posted,” Fuchs stated in an e-mail.
However, Cramer was “disturbed” by the fact that the whole process of regaining the CCFL signs took one and a half hours. “It takes a lot of time and planning for even a small display,” she said.
“Furthermore,” Cramer stated, “it speaks volumes that this member of the Cornell staff chose to censor speech she disagreed with, rather than facilitating an open discussion about the issue.”
“The Cornell community should be aware that our right to free speech regarding relevant current issues is hindered by this so-called ‘unwritten policy,’“ Cramer said.
Yesterday, Bruce posted a response to the incident on CUinfo.
He stated, “We are aware that some have attempted to cast this incident in the context of the stifling of freedom of speech. Nothing could be further from the truth. This University has and will continue to respect and uphold the free-speech rights of all members of the Cornell community.”
Bruce explained that there is “lots of tradition” of the Arts Quad being a place for student organizations to express themselves and communicate with the rest of the Cornell community.
“It is a fitting, evolving reality” that the trend is transferring to other quads, because “at this institution, everyone gets to speak [his or her] mind,” he said.
Cramer said, “I hope we can work it out so everyone wins — the University can express support for free speech, and the student organizations don’t have to fear [censorship by the University].”
Dove and Warren could not be reached for comment at press time.