March 11, 2014

JOHN | As Long as They Respect Our Right to Free Speech

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By REBECCA JOHN

Two Novembers ago, I participated in a demonstration on Ho Plaza that was asked to leave on the grounds that we did not have a right to the space because another group had already reserved it. After we were kicked of Ho Plaza, we congregated unapologetically outside of Day Hall. Emotions were running high at this point, and I will never forget the moment when one of my own friends abruptly addressed the crowd: “I am Tuscarora. I reside in the same confederacy as they do, and you are all my guests. So we don’t need any permits to be here.” In that moment,  the police hovering around us, the hecklers behind us and the administrative building looming over us, all seemed pathetically small in comparison to our own truth that we were speaking. These are the moments we need to protect fiercely.

Yesterday, a vote took place on an amendment to the campus code that would restrict free speech on campus and act against a comprehensive faculty-driven investigation that recommended that the wording of the campus code be clarified to remove any sort of ambiguity regarding students’ rights to free expression and assembly. While the vote passed to amend the code, this still has to be approved by President David Skorton.

The Codes and Judicial Committee snaked some vague language into a proposed amendment to the campus code. Specifically, one addition allows for forms of self-expression and dissent on campus, “as long as they respect the policies of the space in question.” This amendment was proposed after the incidents of Nov. 2012 and smelled suspiciously like the administration retroactively trying to justify their actions, particularly in regards to police misconduct after student protesters refused to leave the space where they were gathered but for where they had not obtained a “permit.”

“As long as they respect the policies of these space in question.” In Nov. 2012, this phrase could have been used to justify the removal of student demonstrators who were exercising their right to freely assemble, on the grounds that they did not “reserve” Ho Plaza. Its phrasing is vague enough to seem non-threatening, yet it is also vague enough to allow administrative meddling into free speech and freedom of assembly on campus through permits and other means. Furthermore, securing the right to assemble in public spaces is especially important at a time when universities across the country are increasingly meddling in free speech; at Emory, “free expression zones” are being established to designate limited spaces where free speech can occur. An op-ed written last week scrutinizes the implications the amendment will have on free speech more in depth.

It seems like those who were truly violating “respect” of the space were not the student demonstrators, but rather the police who pushed a student to the ground and threatened another with arrest, in addition to other authority figures who asked demonstrators exercising their free speech to leave, which is outlined on page 7 of the faculty report. Those who are truly failing to “respect” the space are the upper-level administrators, who refuse to formally acknowledge that Cornell is standing on occupied land — the original homelands of the Cayuga people. That may seem like just a gesture, but then again, so is a permit.

In fact, both are gestures that are replete with meaning and power, and this is why the amendment to the wording on the campus code is relevant. We don’t need to add ambiguity to the right to free speech, when it should be as clear as possible.

Rebecca John is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at rj224@cornell.edu. Mushroom Rage appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.