March 2, 2014

CASTLE | The Right to Free Speech

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In my time at Cornell, I have witnessed and participated in several demonstrations and political actions because I felt a moral and social obligation to take action. Though personally, I have mixed feelings about direct action and physical forms of protest. At times, I even question the efficacy of a march or a banner-drop, especially on this campus. I find that Cornell culture encourages the student body to be individualistic or highly compartmentalized — apathetic if not myopic — and even fearful of expressing dissenting opinions, at least in a candid way. I’m not saying all students are prone to this, but I think it presents a particular challenge to organizing in this environment. Nevertheless, even in an age where a retweet might reach a wider audience than a megaphone, there is nothing quite like an assemblage of people, “bodies in alliance,” united by an idea, by a set of principles. Direct action, using one’s body and voice to send a message, has proved necessary time and time again as part of a long tradition of civil disobedience in this country and in democratic movements around the world. This is an essential pillar of the cherished right to freedom of expression, and protecting the integrity of this right requires constant vigilance. When it comes to self-expression, there’s a social pressure that does the work of policing even before codified rules and regulations are tangibly enforced. Yet a proposed amendment to the Campus Code of Conduct — which will be voted on by the University Assembly next Tuesday, March 11 — newly threatens this right in an already repressive atmosphere.

As of right now, the Code recognizes demonstrations as “legitimate forms of self-expression” and clearly states in Title I, Article III, B.3, “Because outdoor picketing, marches, rallies, and other demonstrations generally pose no threat of long-lasting exclusive use of University grounds or property, there appears to be no need for a mandatory permit procedure for such outdoor activities.” The proposed change is to add a qualifying statement: “Such activities are allowed so long as they respect the policies of the space in question.” This proposed amendment comes after reviews of a November, 2012 protest and counter protest meeting on Ho Plaza and the ensuing events. These included a student being pushed to the ground by campus police, a student being misidentified as “unaffiliated” with Cornell and threatened with arrest and CUPD demanding that participating faculty members show their IDs with no cause, to which they refused.

The police and their contacts at Day Hall hold that one of the groups filed a Use of University Property form and the other did not, but both were using amplified sound.  Therefore, the unregistered party did not have an equal right to continue. However, the Code clearly states that the UUP is unnecessary for demonstrations. The Faculty Senate carried out an extensive review of the incident and found that both groups were in accordance with the Code, that there was no threat of escalation, and that the only violent party seemed to be the campus police. Their report includes several recommendations: the campus police should not be allowed to demand identification without “legitimate suspicion of unlawful activity”; faculty must be allowed to participate in demonstrations such that their right to expression is prioritized over the vague obligation to act as “agents of the University”; the right to assemble without filing a UUP form be preserved with all ambiguous language eliminated or clarified and finally that CUPD and “event managers” receive more, and better, training regarding demonstrations and freedoms of expression. The proposed change to the campus code of conduct directly contradicts the Faculty Senate’s recommendations, adding ambiguity instead of clarifying it, opening up acts of self-expression to policing through permitting, and further managing free speech via the “policies of the space in question” such as the UUP.

The UUP is just one example of the type of paper shuffling that the amendment would enable the administration to slap on protesters, but it’s the one we currently have. So let’s take it as an example of a policy that could be newly enforced under the proposed amendment. I’m not convinced requirements for UUPs will be imposed uniformly. For example, as the Faculty Senate report states, students are required to submit a UUP form three weeks in advance, but the requests are often submitted late or processed without review as in the case of the Nov. 19 incident. Who is to say the requirement of three-week advance notice won’t be selectively applied based on the beliefs of a student organization? Even if active discrimination doesn’t take place, there is no guarantee that the system won’t slow down and speed up anyway — affecting students’ ability to plan and take action on issues they care about. If “respecting the policies of the space” can mean forcing students to meet a time requirement, it is not only unreasonable, but in practice a suppression of free speech. Aside from the issue of the UUP specifically and dubious enforcement policies more generally, there simply should not be a set of criteria for self-expression and the rules certainly should not be rewritten by the people enforcing them. World events move fast and bureaucracy moves slow; in campus life, students are often forced to organize around budget deadlines, prelims, conferences and other events while still trying to respond to and engage with global issues in an effective and timely manner.

Cornell is a private institution; its campus is private property, and it is within its rights to make the change. If Cornell wanted to, it could amend the Campus Code to require people to wear visible identification badges, to authorize police to corral protesters into a free speech zone, to build a fence around the property and have us all check in and out.  While Cornell might be within its rights in doing so, it would be considered a serious threat to free speech on campus and our integrity as an institution. The proposed change to the Campus Code should be seen in the same light; we need to be cutting red tape, not making room for it.

Anna-Lisa Castle is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at [email protected] Biweekly Real Talk appears alternate Mondays this semester.