October 27, 2005

Panel Examines Campus Speech

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As the latter part of a two-part series examining the freedom of speech on campus, nine panelists joined nearly a hundred Cornellians last night in a forum titled “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.”

Two solid hours were spent discussing a variety of topics including First Amendment rights, journalistic integrity, censorship and racism.

A significant portion of the discussion was based on the Sept. 2005 article in The Cornell American titled “The Color of Cornell’s Crime.” The American has recently come under fire for the front-page article, and its funds, supplied by the Student Assembly Finance Commission, have been frozen and reduced since the organization’s inception.

The discussion, moderated by Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president of academic and student services, began by comparing the First Amendment with Cornell’s Campus Code of Conduct, which emphasizes freedom with responsibility. The first panelist to speak, Prof. Steven Shiffrin, law, pointed out that many forms of speech are not legally protected and that certain forms of protected speech exist in what he called a “hierarchy of First Amendment words.”

“Some speech is more valuable and more worthy than other speech. The first Cornell American issue was trash. It was insulting; it was not valuable; it was not worthy public speech,” said Prof. Isaac Kramnick, government, one of the panelists. “Even hurtful speech, even trash, should be protected speech. I don’t think there should be any restrictions on the freedom of speech. I don’t want to give anyone the legal authority to determine what speech is allowed, what is worthy and what is trash.”

Another panelist, Prof. Robert Harris, Africana studies, vice provost for diversity and faculty development, had a slight disagreement.

“I think The Cornell American can print whatever it wants to print, but we shouldn’t have to pay for it. I won’t call it journalism because The Cornell American is an opinion piece masquerading as a newspaper,” Harris said. “Would I ban them? Would I censor them? No. I think we as a community [should be able] to determine what type of discourse we would like to see in this community.”

Andy Guess ’05, Sun columnist and fellow panelist, responded, “Community standards are not enforced by law. It implies there’s an easy objective line to draw.”

The panel also considered whether free speech served certain interests.

“It’s supposed to serve all of us in this country, but in my honest opinion, [free speech] serves those who hold it,” said Zach Jones ’06, Sun associate editor and one of the panelists. “The minority who controls the dialogue in this country … are unfortunately largely white and male. Free speech is supposed to serve the artistic community. Unfortunately, the distribution of art is strictly governed by money.”

Jamie Weinstein ’06, Sun columnist, disagreed with his fellow panelist.

“Who does free speech serve? Generally, it serves those who do not have power. There’s a reason totalitarian governments don’t allow free speech. You don’t have the right to have anyone … to view it, but you do have the right to say it and promote it,” Weinstein said.

“The economic system privileges many speakers and subordinates others,” Shiffrin said. “80 percent of white Americans say that they believe they’re smarter, more patriotic, harder working than Latinos … They internalize this for a variety of different reasons. Big conglomerates control the airwaves and that has a big impact on … [what] can be discussed.”

Tommy Bruce, vice president of University communications and fellow panelist, found that there can be a viable solution.

“Those who have the power are those who organize,” Bruce said. “Outlawing speech … is the most desperate act. There are a lot of things before that, that you can do.”

The panel then spent some time encouraging dialogue, which panelists believed would be the most effective means of countering speech that some find distasteful.

“Let’s have a conversation, but we can’t do it when a publication is basically deliberately belittling, denigrating in its approach,” Harris said.

“That’s a start, but I don’t think that’s enough. That ignores the uneven playing field. We need more speech and more investment of concrete resources that balance the uneven playing field,” said Prof. Anna Marie Smith, government and another panelist, in response to Harris’s words. She then cited the example of the Cornell administration spending more resources to improve and expand Latino Studies after a major case of vandalism on a piece of artwork displayed on the Arts Quad a few years ago.

On the topic of funding The Cornell American, Mitch Fagen ’08, president of the Cornell Democrats and fellow panelist, believed that it would be “a very, very bad idea” for the SAFC to “censor” organizations.

“If there should be censorship, and I’m not sure there should be, it should come from the administration and should be included in [Cornell] policy,” Fagen said.

The panel last night was co-sponsored by the Social Change Committee, Balch Residence Hall, the Cornell Democrats, The Cornell Review, the Cornell ACLU, the Office of University Communications, Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes, the Office of Minority Educational Affairs, Students Acting for Gender Equality, Cornell’s Women’s Resource Center, and the Minority ILR Student Organization.

Shivaun Deena ’08 and Kassandra Frederique ’08 are part of a campus-wide campaign called Stop the Silence, which helped coordinate the event.

“We are focused more about bringing about social justice and change,” Deena said.

“I think both panels were very effective and … the panelists were very diverse in their opinions. They were great. That’s what Stop the Silence is about: making a very comfortable environment for everyone to [talk],” Frederique added.

One attendee of the panel discussion felt the conservative voice was not adequately represented on campus.

“There is such a prevalent liberal bias on campus … and we’re here to try to add balance to, in my opinion, an extremely one-sided campus. I think we do a fairly good job of it,” said Nick Kavanagh ’07, managing editor of The Cornell American.

Others felt the panel itself was effective in encouraging discussion on the topic.

“I’ve also been educated on a lot of issues that I wasn’t clear about. I wish this is something that a lot more students would take heed to,” said Justin Davis ’07, president of the Black Students Union and a panelist on Monday’s panel discussion. “This couldn’t be a better way to show … Cornell’s 5-year celebration of ‘Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds.’”

“I think that the first and second seminars make the case for more of these. … The more we talk about it the better,” Bruce said to The Sun. “We need to make sure that as Cornellians that we behave in a way, that we do journalism in a way that enhances dialogue, not balkanize it.”