August 26, 2010

The End of the Road

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When “protecting the public good” is an excuse for action, freedom is most at stake. Indeed, this is why the U.S. Constitution includes a Bill of Rights — to ensure that certain freedoms are untouchable regardless of the public mood at any given time. Censorship might “protect the public good” when applied to hate groups, for instance, yet the Constitution protects freedom of speech at all times. The founders saw that if liberty is restricted for one reason, even a seemingly good one at the moment, it is liable to be infringed again and again. That is the road to tyranny. We have begun traveling on it here at Cornell in light of the new Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs regulations dictated to the Greeks. When Travis Apgar, associate dean of students for fraternity and sorority affairs, finished imposing the new OFSA regulations to Greek leaders, I raised my hand and asked, “Driving is a dangerous activity. Will you now confiscate my car keys?” Surely car accidents are a danger to the public safety, and are a leading cause of death worldwide. Yet we cannot, we should not, inhibit the rights of all drivers even in the face of tragedies that occur on the road. The difference is that in the case of the Greek system, unlike in the case of the car keys, the University has authority to act. And like any bureaucracy, it will always try to expand its control. What then, is the logical conclusion? Students will surely continue to drink alcohol, and some will get sick from over-consumption. And following the next incident, OFSA will hand the Greeks a new rule; maybe, say, no open parties whatsoever. And then, come another incident, another rule — until at last there are no rights left to take. For as long as the University feels that a rule will “‘protect students’ safety,” no holds are barred. The argument has of course been made that the new OFSA regulations are merely enforcing compliance with the New York State law on underage alcohol consumption. Yet we must stand up and say that this is not a question of the drinking age. It is not a question of our “right” or “non-right” to drink alcohol under the age of 21. Rather, the issue at stake is self-governance, our right as adults to evaluate the pros and cons of our own decisions and act accordingly. Indeed, isn’t that how we learn? If the University cares whatsoever about fostering an environment of accountability, about building better adults, the new rules would remain the pipe dream they ought to be. Yet their implications for personal freedom are achingly real. Let us examine, for instance, the rule that associate members (“pledges”) will not be allowed to attend social events where alcohol is present. Ostensibly this will help the students focus on their academics. The irony here is that ultimately such a rule is not in the students’ best interest. Students must learn how to balance their work and social lives. It is not the University’s job to say what the proper balance is. If I choose to skip a homework assignment, and receive a lower grade, then that is my business. To be frank, it is my right to do so, even if I suffer from it.  The new OFSA regulations are, therefore, more than absurd: They are dangerous. They threaten our autonomy and development as adults.  We Greeks must ask ourselves, as must the University, “What’s next?” Every year OFSA takes an inch of freedom from the Greeks, and the results are such that when I describe event management rules to my non-Greek friends, I receive stares of bewilderment. Security guards? Mandated staffing ratios? Serving stations? Water must be served in bottles only? It is now unquestionably true that it is easier for non-Greek students to throw parties than for Greeks to do so. And since our parties are regularly inspected, and do follow certain appropriate rules, they are easier to keep safe. Banning freshmen from our parties will not stop underage drinking. It will merely lead to more parties in apartments, where there is no IFC to inspect them. There will be hard alcohol present, and there will not be staffers to ensure safety. It cannot have escaped the minds of administrators that prohibition never works. Freshmen alcohol consumption will not be stopped by the OFSA regulations; the real result will be the weakening of the Greek system as a social force. Maybe, though, that has been the University’s intention all along.Jonathan Panter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and is the Vice President of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. He may be contacted at jgp68@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Jonathan Panter