December 9, 2007

R-E-S-P-E-C-T for Ashcroft

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Simply attending an Ivy League school does not necessarily mean we are all upstanding citizens. This became evident when former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft spoke at Cornell during the last week of class. The manner in which protesters interrupted his speech was shameful. Almost equally as shameful was how our University handled, or rather neglected to handle, the situation. This should not happen in an educational environment.
Let me first say that I fully support free speech and the right to protest. I have no problem with the protesters who peacefully assembled outside Statler Hall. When I sat down, the people next to me told me that they were planning on interrupting the speech and that they might need to make a quick exit. I thought, “Wow, I might be an accomplice to a crime and if this gets on YouTube I could be as famous as the ‘Don’t tase me, bro!’ guy.” But I thought better of it and moved my seat.
The night started off with some tension when a member of the Cornell administration clearly stated that anybody who prevented the speaker from delivering his message, or prevented the audience from listening to Ashcroft, would be warned and subsequently removed. At about 8 P.M. the protesters stood up with their backs to the stage. These protesters were preventing people from seeing Mr. Ashcroft, even though audience members had taken the effort to get tickets and wait in line.
The problems here are twofold. First of all, this type of protest was not only counterproductive, but it was unintelligent and disrespectful. Ashcroft was kind enough to have a question and answer session following his speech. Why had these protesters not confronted Ashcroft on his decisions and debated him? Instead, they stood up and got some attention, and then they left without proving or accomplishing a single thing.
The second problem was that Cornell showed no leadership. Instead of warning the people who were shouting, and then removing them upon a repeated offense, the administrators in attendance and the Cornell police simply stood there. They occasionally moved around a bit, maybe to give the appearance that they were about to spring into action. Maybe they were afraid that they would end up on YouTube. Nonetheless, Cornell University has a duty to its guests and students to ensure that there is a free exchange of ideas. The protesters were clearly in violation of the rules established prior to the speech, but there was no consequence. Furthermore, this sets a bad precedent. Why would Ashcroft or any other person with similar views ever want to come here? Frankly, the University was meek.
Along with the free exchange of ideas and intellectual discourse that I mentioned earlier, is this little thing called respect. This should not be taken as a criticism of protest or dissent. It is these two concepts that have, in part, made the U.S. the nation that it is today. However, there is a time and place for protest as well as a respectful way of protesting. Don’t get me wrong, Ashcroft is not right about everything he says. Nonetheless, as a conservative and a Bush appointee he willingly came in to the liberal lion’s den that is an Ivy League University. Furthermore, he answered Cornellians’ questions—some of which were scathing and pointed— in a respectful manner despite everything that was thrown (thrown in the figurative sense, although if people had actually thrown objects at him, I am sure Cornell would not have stopped it) at him.
There is something to be said for the office of Attorney General, or any high ranking office for that manner. The man who holds or held such a title deserves some level of respect, especially in an educational/intellectual setting. Ashcroft has devoted nearly his entire life to public service and has family members in the armed services, and he deserves respect. As college students, on the verge of adulthood, we should be able to distinguish between agreement and respect.
There is nothing wrong with exercising free speech or protesting. Part of the college experience is becoming passionate about what you believe in and fighting for a cause. However, passion should not supersede respect.