April 6, 2010

The Boundaries of Expression

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An ugly surprise greeted  students returning to campus after Spring Break: the newly-erected bridge fences, deemed necessary by the administration to maintain public safety. Plenty of opinions were exchanged — and continue to be exchanged — regarding the presence of the fences, and such productive dialogue is always encouraged. However, problems arise when the fences themselves act as the forum for such dialogue.

The fences are clearly not simple barriers. They are loaded with intangibles — emotion, context and tragic history — and will continue to carry these intangibles until they are removed from the bridges and replaced with long-term physical deterrents, which will also assume some of these traits.

Some would argue that despite the fact that the bridge fences were not intended to be outlets for student expression, they have become such outlets. Therefore no restrictions should be placed on what does and does not constitute a valid form of expression: The fences have become an a sort of barometer for the mood on campus.

This point is largely valid; the meaning of the bridge fences, at least to some extent, is formative. But, considering the tragedies that have occurred, some forms of expression, such as commercial posters, are simply inappropriate and should not be allowed.

We must not forget the University’s original reason for installing the fences — to prevent suicides. They never were designed as poster boards, and students should not treat them as such.

We applaud the Student Assembly’s Resolution 68, which addresses this difficult dilemma. While it reaffirms that the fences are not poster boards, it nonetheless acknowledges the desire to appropriately beautify the fences with flowers, ribbons and similarly uplifting objects. Such decorations are not artistic exhibitions; they exist simply to boost morale and counteract the depressing effects of the chain-link sentinels over our gorges.

Students have many forums for expressing their thoughts about the fences — chalking on sidwalks, congregating in support or opposition to the fences, etc. — and we encourage this dialogue to continue. However, the fences themselves should only harbor forms of expression that are appropriate and sensitive to the tragedies that have occured. While the University may worry about how prospective students could interpret such demonstrations, such conerns do not justify suppressing expressing in these other forums.

Given how quickly the suicide crisis evolved at Cornell University, the administration may not have had the time it needed to fully consider and discuss all the ramifications of the fences. Thus, policies on the regulating expression inevitably developed over time and after the fact.  By now, though, it has become clear that the University can regulate the fences while doing what it can to keep morale high, all without discouraging the underlying dialogue about the fences’ existence.