Several hundred Cornellians joined eight panelists last night in an event specifically tailored to foster discussion on topics such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech. The event, titled “Censor This: A panel discussion on when, if ever, limits on the press are appropriate”, was sponsored by StudPubs, an umbrella organization consisting of all student publications at Cornell.
Some of the panelists supported the freedom of speech unconditionally, while others felt certain limitations were necessary, especially on a college campus. The panelists wholeheartedly agreed that freedom of speech encourages beneficial and worthy dialogue. When it came to whether the Student Assembly should fund The Cornell American, however, the panelists were ideologically split, fueling passionate and insightful debate on the issue of the freedom of speech at Cornell.
Panelists included: Alexandre Emboaba Da Costa grad, co-chair of the Latino Graduate Student Coalition; Justin Davis ’07, president of the Black Student Union; Prof. Robert Harris, Africana studies, vice provost for diversity and faculty development; Dianne Lynch, dean of the school of communications at Ithaca College; Eric Shive ’07, editor-in-chief of The American; Prof. Buzz Spector, art; Gary Stewart, assistant director of community relations; and Everet Yi ’08, president of the Cornell ACLU.
“The press tries to present information in a balanced manner,” Harris said. “Speech isn’t totally unrestrained. You can’t libel, you can’t slander … There exists a community standard.”
“On a college campus, there are certain things you can and can’t do,” Davis said. “You can’t be ‘punkish’ and not accept the responsibility of your words.”
The event was partially inspired by recent incidents surrounding The Cornell American’s September 2005 article titled “The Color of Cornell’s Crime.” The S.A. Finance Commission usually funds The Cornell American, but the publication has recently come under fire and its funds have been frozen or reduced in the past.
“Should we have to pay for speech that vilifies and disparages others?” Harris asked at the panel discussion.
“We at The American are trying to make conservatives feel more welcome,” Shive said. “They’re not going to find these views otherwise. … You can’t say we didn’t create discussion. Personally I don’t find what we print offensive.”
When asked by an audience member what kind of publication should get SAFC funds, Harris replied, “It depends on what the students want.”
Some panelists addressed the censorship of information from a matter of principle.
“There should be no critical mass of people to stop someone from expressing their point of view,” Da Costa said.
“What kind of civil discourse do you want to have? This is about the marketplace of ideas, and we have the privilege to have access to those ideas,” Lynch asked.
Other panelists focused in part on the practical conciderations of censorship.
“The freedom of the press is a very gray issue,” said Stewart, who was previously managing editor of The Moscow Times and opinion page editor of The Ithaca Journal.
“If we’re going to talk about censorship, we have to talk about power. Power to own an image, the power to show it or hide it,” Spector said. “The state has enormous power to stifle debate, to engage in punitive legislation, to perform acts on behalf of public standards of decency, articulated or not, that end up chilling the climate for free expression.”
“The best way to fight hate speech is to talk about it,” Yi said, in agreement with much of the rest of the panel.
At the end of the 2-hour event, an opportunity was opened to the audience to ask questions and to give comments. The heated debate between panelists and audience members continued even after the event had reached its end.
“Everybody in this game is planning to be a journalist. And as journalists, it’s important to learn that there are rules. And those rules are not there to hem them in or to keep them from getting their story out,” said Tommy Bruce, vice president of University communications, as one of the attendees of the event. “It’s the way you do it … that’s the most productive and has the greatest impact for the greatest number of readers. … Nobody said, ‘Don’t speak.’ But speak in a way that people will listen to you.”
Most participants found the event to be applaudable.
“It’s definitely good that we’re talking about issues because that’s what we’re supposed to do,” Shive said to The Sun. “But it kept drifting to the content of the piece. This debate was just supposed to be about the freedom of speech and how it applies on campus … I would consider participating in a second forum talking about the content of the article. What I was trying to get across is, the immediate reaction to what we print is, ‘don’t let them print any more. Take away their money, send them to the administration.’ If we can just avoid that phase and just have discussions about things, that’s great.”
“I think they could have done a better job picking the speakers. Obviously I thought most of the people up there were qualified, but it would have been interesting at least to see what someone may have had to say limiting free speech,” said Grayson Fahrner ’08. “It would be a lot more value added to the discussion. … [The panel] needed a little more diversity.”
“A newspaper is powerless without its readers, and the only way they’re going to get those is by being a quality newspaper.” Fahrner added. “The American is a valuable publication … I think everyone on campus has a stake in reading something they don’t see anywhere else.”
This event was co-sponsored by The Cornell American, The Cornell Daily Sun, The Cornell Lunatic, The Cornell Moderator, The Cornell Review, Kitsch, Turn Left, Voices, Black Students United, Cornell ACLU, Cornell College Libertarians, Cornell College Republicans, Cornell Democrats, Cornell Political Coalition, Mortar Board, the Image Committee, and the Cornell Administration. The forum was moderated by Jim Shliferstein ‘06, a Sun columnist, and president of The Cornell Moderator.