My column today was motivated by a current controversy on our campus and by the larger issues it represents. Articles in the Cornell Review’s orientation issue have once again put issues of civility, diversity, and free speech squarely before our campus community and the greater Cornell family. The views as expressed in the Review articles — one focused on minority students and one satirically linking Muslims to terrorism — were clearly at odds with the values of our university.
The current controversy raises three broad issues:
1. How should we as a campus respond to writings and other forms of speech that target certain groups within our campus community in ways that many find offensive?
2. How can we foster a robust discussion and civil debate of contentious issues in ways that are respectful of political and intellectual diversity?
3. When it comes to hurtful or hateful speech, is there a certain line that we as a university won’t let people cross?
The present polarization of students at Cornell and of citizens throughout our country demands a dispassionate exploration of this matter.
Portraying classes of individuals as caricatures advances nothing. This serves no useful function within our campus community, is hurtful to those targeted, and is antithetical to the values our university has championed for nearly 150 years.
The antidote to offensive speech, however, is more speech, not less speech. Many on our campus and beyond have found the Review articles objectionable and have responded forcefully by exercising their own free-speech rights through picketing, a Student Assembly resolution criticizing the Review for causing “alienation and intimidation,” and other means. I encourage all who take umbrage with points of view expressed on campus or in media distributed on our campus to come forward to communicate their own views in ways that inform and enlarge the perspective of the wider community.
On the second issue, intellectual and political diversity, the need for rational, civil and informed debate is also critical, especially in this Presidential election year. On the national level, critics like David Horowitz and Students for Academic Freedom have, for several years, been advocating for an “Academic Bill of Rights” that would require ideological balance on university faculties. A range of intellectual and political perspectives is clearly desirable. But, as I wrote in my column of October 17, 2006, actual mandates imposed externally or administratively would be clumsy, meddlesome, intrusive, and ineffective. Rather, I believe we must recommit ourselves as a university to welcoming reasoned inquiry and debate across the ideological spectrum.
The current economic crisis, health care, climate change, access to quality education, Social Security, immigration, national security, and inequality of opportunity in the U.S. and abroad are among the topics that deserve our attention in this election year and beyond. The session in Bailey Hall last Friday evening focused on some of these topics and set a positive tone for dialogue and data-driven debate, which I hope we can carry forward.
Throughout the academic year, we will be looking to bring additional thought leaders to campus in order to present opposing views on topics of deep national and international concern and then engage the campus community in reasoned discussion and debate. We will publicize these forums widely, and I hope that many students, faculty and staff members will take advantage of them to expand their perspectives and develop a more nuanced understanding of the challenges facing our society and the larger world
We must adhere to the principle that all perspectives and their proponents are welcome on our great university campuses. No speaker should be kept from our lecterns unless the immediate consequence of a speech would be a violent act or other lawless behavior. And all discourse should be civil and non-threatening.
I hope you will join me in resisting attempts to limit campus discussion, even when we abhor the message being delivered, and in promoting civil and rational debate as an opportunity to learn together and develop a more nuanced understanding of the issues and the perspectives of those who bring them forth.
But, even in the realm of free speech, there is a line that we cannot let people cross. Speech that is abusive, vulgar, derisive, or provocative but does not create an imminent danger of violence is generally protected. On the other hand, “fighting words”—defined by the courts as words which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace—have been held to exceed the bounds of protected speech. All of us have many opportunities and many ways to challenge actions and words that are antithetical to this community that we all call home. I hope that you will join me in condemning any message that hurts and divides.
David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. Contact him at email@example.com. From David appears monthly.