March 11, 2014

University Assembly Passes Resolution Clarifying Freedom of Speech at Cornell

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The University Assembly amended and passed Resolution 9 — titled “Resolution to Clarify Responsible Free Expression in the Campus Code of Conduct” — after a lengthy debate among U.A. members, students and faculty Tuesday.

Among other edits, the passed resolution adds the sentence “Everyone has the right to be heard and listen to others” to the Campus Code of Conduct, according to Melissa Lukasiewicz ’14, the U.A. vice chair of operations.

In addition, the resolution removes phrasing that some members said was “ambiguous” during the U.A. meeting.

Prior to being amended, the resolution stated that demonstrations in University spaces are allowed as long as they “respect [the] policies of the space in question” or do not “infringe upon the educational mission of the University.”

According to Lukasiewicz, the amended resolution shifted focus back to the rights of protesters by clarifying their rights and removing a suggestion to provide advanced notices about on-campus demonstrations.

Students and faculty members criticized the original resolution’s wording and underlying policy.

Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, industrial and labor relations, said the original version of the resolution contained ambiguous language.

“Combinations of ambiguities in the language and placing overly broad discretion in the hands of administrators can lead to restrictions on speech. The Code should be left alone,” she said.

Lieberwitz said she believes attention should be shifted to whether the policies “are written in a democratic way.”

“It seems to me that we can focus on a participatory process with writing policy that’s consistent with the campus code,” she said.

Daniel Sinykin grad, a member of the Codes and Judicial Committee of the U.A., also said the initial resolution was ambiguously worded.

“This [resolution] opens a backdoor [for administrators to] defer questions of free speech to the policies of the space in question, essentially writing the administration a blank check to restrict free speech,” Sinykin said. “We have an obligation to write a better resolution.”

University employee Gregory Mezey ’09 and Prof. Randy Wayne, plant biology — U.A. voting members who served on Codes and Judicial Committee — defended the resolution and said it did not limit free speech.

“The policies are specific and clear — the proposed resolution strengthens free speech at Cornell,” Wayne said. “There is no need for mandatory permit procedure — anyone can exercise his or her freedom to speech. While it is freedom of speech, it is not an unconstrained speech. It is limited to those activities that do not disrupt other university functions.”

Both U.A. members and community members said they were doubtful about whether changing the Campus Code of Conduct would significantly change University policy.

“I don’t think it’s going to change much. It doesn’t change how these decisions are adjudicated,” said Prof. Ronald Booker, neurobiology and behavior, who is also a U.A. member. “What we need is to have people sit down and have a serious discussion about space use.”

In addition, U.A. members and community members questioned the discrepancy between university policy set in the Campus Code of Conduct and space-specific policy.

Space-specific policy is available online and the policy varies depending on the place, according to Mezey. The Office of Dean of Students states that currently amplified sound on Ho Plaza is only allowed under the guidelines of the Use of University Property form, but this is not a consistent University policy and may not apply to other spaces, Mezey said.

The different space-specific policies are not mentioned in the Campus Code of Conduct and is set by a variety of administrative entities.

“Space-specific policy, is that exhaustive? Would it be possible for different entities of this university to create space-specific policies that contradict or conflict the Code of Conduct? And who would be the entity to approve those policies?” said Ulysses Smith ’14, Student Assembly president. “There’s some gap in communication.”

After points on the resolution’s ambiguous language were brought up and discussed, Lukasiewicz proposed the clarifying edits to the resolution that were eventually accepted and passed.

The passed resolution will be forwarded to President David Skorton for approval, according to Jim Blair, chair of the U.A.

This lengthy discussion at the U.A. meeting was precipitated by protests that took place in Nov. 2012 where two separate organizations protested on Ho Plaza at the same time.

Members from both Students for Justice in Palestine and Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee converged on Ho Plaza in response to military clashes between Israel and Gaza, The Sun previously reported.

During the protests, Cornell Police officers and an event manager asked SJP to stop using microphones, because the group had not filed a UUP form. According to a Faculty Senate investigation of the incident, interactions between CUPD and SJP members turned “hostile.” Three faculty members supporting SJP had interactions with CUPD which may have involved pushing and threats of arrest, and a female SJP demonstrator was knocked to the ground, allegedly by a CUPD officer.

Later investigation of the incident focused on issues of free speech, amplified sound and UUP forms, The Sun previously reported. Although SJP members had planned the protest before CIPAC, members of CIPAC had filed a UUP form to use Ho Plaza and to use amplified sound.

The Faculty Senate found that the right to protest without having to file a UUP should be preserved and asked that the Campus Code be clarified to remove ambiguity about the use of amplified sound and the necessity of UUP forms, The Sun previously reported.