September 28, 2015

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: On Student Activism

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Editor’s Note: The following is a response to the open letter published in The Sun on September 25th:

To Cornell Independent Students’ Union, Students for Justice in Palestine and The Cornell Progressive:

Thank you for your September 18 open letter to me concerning freedom of expression on our campus. I welcome this opportunity to make clear my thoughts on this critical issue.

As a university, we support an environment where all views can be heard, tested and debated, and we encourage faculty and students to be active in policies and issues that affect our campus, the nation, and the world — and to make their views known. But each of us has a responsibility to exercise our freedom of expression in a way that does not impede the university’s educational and research mission, nor infringe on the ability of others in our community to exercise their freedom of expression.

I recently adopted as university policy a clarification of the rules governing outdoor campus events put forth by a working group of faculty, students and administrators. These time, place, and manner rules are consistent with the Campus Code of Conduct, which exists to support Cornell’s educational and research missions while safeguarding the university community and its members. I appreciate the efforts of the Outdoor Space Working Group to propose these provisions, which are posted and accessible to all on the Events Planning Website (

I also appreciate the work done by the Cornell University Police Department and its officers who protect our students — and, indeed, all of us — every day, often under difficult circumstances. They are dedicated to ensuring that our campus community is safe and able to function at the highest levels of excellence.

Indoor demonstrations, such as sit-ins, continue to be governed by the Campus Code of Conduct, which states that the academic and administrative work of the university must be allowed to operate unhindered at all times. Classrooms, libraries, laboratories, living units and faculty and administrative offices are dedicated to specific purposes, which the university must be free to pursue without disruption. As the Code states, “The law of trespass and the right of free speech are not mutually exclusive and, indeed, have always coexisted in our legal system.”

My approach going forward will be to rely on the Campus Code in response to allegations of student misconduct, while understanding the dual reality that students should spend their college years exploring and testing boundaries and that administrators must strive to calibrate their responses to student expression.

Ours is a campus atmosphere where robust debate and a discussion of all views — even those with which some may disagree — can flourish. That is our heritage, as established by our founders 150 years ago, and that will remain our guiding principle.

Thank you again for reaching out to me.

Elizabeth Garrett, President