In November, confusion over the University’s permit requirements for on-campus protests spread when Cornell Police broke up competing rallies held by the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine, evicting the latter from Ho Plaza. Members of SJP and others have claimed the administration was infringing on students’ free speech rights. This Tuesday, the University Assembly tabled a vote on a change to the Campus Code of Conduct that would better define Cornell’s permit requirements for such protests. The need for the UA to carefully consider and clarify policies that may restrict students’ ability to express dissent is clear.
At the November rallies, CIPAC believed their UUP gave them preferred access to Ho Plaza. SJP thought their lack of a UUP did not preclude them from staging a counter-protest at the same time. Which of the two groups was in the right? Based on CUPD’s odd and tentative compromise — forcibly ejecting SJP from Ho Plaza after waiting out nearly an hour of dueling — even Cornell officials were unsure. According to a recent University report, the incident shed light on contradictions that may exist within the ambiguous language of the Code of Conduct. These discrepancies must be eliminated via simple and uniformly enforced guidelines.
The resolution set aside Tuesday seeks to illuminate the fuzzier points. It proposes changing the code to reflect two clarified policies: UUPs would be recommended, but not required, for on-campus rallies or demonstrations; and unregistered counter-protests would be permissible. The resolution also rightly maintains Cornell’s authority to enforce basic “time, manner and place” restrictions that ban prohibitively disruptive protests at regular University events and activities. We disagree with some who say that such restrictions — which are content-neutral and thus do not allow for discrimination against groups based on the beliefs they hold — infringe on basic free speech rights.
However, to avoid unreasonable restrictions on students’ free expression, much clearer guidelines should be implemented to define what exactly constitutes “disruption.” Bright-line rules clarifying permissible proximity, volume and form of protests would better ensure that the University is not free to arbitrarily disband student demonstrations on a case-by-case basis. Additionally, any clarification of the Code of Conduct should elucidate the role of UUPs on campus and outline what conditions are required for an event to be considered a “counter-protest” and thus free of permit requirements.
Student groups have vocally expressed fear that if UUPs are recommended but not required, organizations will be pressured to register demonstrations to avoid the threat of disbandment. If this concern is unfounded, as some University officials have implied, then the language used in any proposed policy changes should explicitly reflect that. It is the ambiguity present in the current Code of Conduct that leaves the most room for potential abuse based on the content of dissenting speech. The problem of confusion that occurred last semester will not disappear if the UA approves new policies that are as ambiguous as the old ones.