February 15, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Why We Hosted Michael Johns

Print More

On Tuesday evening, the Cornell Political Union hosted Michael Johns, Sr., a conservative political activist and Tea Party leader, to speak to the body about President Trump’s ideology and his perspectives on American populism. He spoke mostly to explain, not to defend, and attempted to offer his perspective and confer an understanding of this brand of politics.

We considered this talk valuable and necessary, and are proud that we hosted it. We also believe Mr. Johns was wrong — at the end of our event, we voted to reject Mr. Johns’ ideology on a vote of 40-14.

When we first announced this event, it was met with a great deal of interest and excitement from the Cornell community. We predicted that this event would be by far our largest, and students of all political persuasions expressed great enthusiasm about the opportunity to participate in our open forum. Unfortunately, we were also met with what can only be referred to as vitriolic backlash, originating both on campus and in the greater Ithaca community.

The character of this backlash ranged from threats to disrupt the event to personal harassment of the speaker in public areas on campus. We were forced to respond to escalatory threats against our event when the Cornell University Police Department informed us that to keep the event open, we had to pay nearly $2,000 in security fees, otherwise, we would be forced to close or cancel the event. We did not have the resources to pay CUPD.

To be clear: we did not want to close the event to the public. We believe that open discourse and debate should be shared by as many different voices as possible, and we deeply value our commitment to those aims. It is unfortunate and ironic that those protesters who criticized our event’s closure were themselves responsible for it. Our refusal to cancel the event was a strong statement in defense of open exchange and free speech. These are not liberal or conservative values, but instead key ideas that form the bedrock of a Cornell education and this American democracy.

It is worth including here a sample passage from the University Code of Conduct, which states:

“…freedom of speech should be the paramount value in a university community. Because it is a special kind of community, whose purpose is the discovery of truth through the practice of free inquiry, a university has an essential dependence on a commitment to the values of unintimidated speech. To curb speech on the grounds that an invited speaker is noxious, that a cause is evil, or that such ideas will offend some listeners is therefore inconsistent with a university’s purpose.”

This event was an important example of this principle in action. Although several protesters did chant and disrupt the speech, we still heard Mr. Johns’ speech in full and proceeded with our debate, which was largely critical of the viewpoints that he introduced. Our members and our guests, as in our tradition, were committed to substantively contesting the ideas of our guest speaker. The idea that the Cornell Political Union served as a “safe space” or an “echo chamber” for any ideas whatsoever is deeply misguided.

We are also disappointed to see The Cornell Daily Sun’s coverage of this event after the fact — written primarily from the perspective of a handful of protesters, with no offsetting quotes from a much larger audience inside the room who actually heard Mr. Johns’ remarks. The statements of the protesters were covered by The Sun as statements of fact about our speaker even though they did not hear a word of the speech or subsequent debate. Presenting this event in caricature makes it impossible for the university at large to determine the truth, and serves to further divide a campus already in political turmoil.

In an era of deep political division, the Cornell Political Union is proud to stand up for meaningful discourse. While we are clearly not sympathetic to Mr. Johns’ position, his views did not represent “white supremacy.” In fact, contrary to the sentiments of the protesters, he spoke sincerely about what he believed should be done to improve the lives of Americans of all types.

The Sun was correct when, in its editorial “Make it Public” — released the night of the event — it called for the university to more substantially support student organizations hosting speakers on campus. We feel strongly that this was a conversation that deserved to be open to the entire campus community, and a regret our inability to provide that. We look forward to hosting more speakers, liberal and conservative, on many more topics this semester and into the future. As The Sun so eloquently put it, “the best conversations are always those that are accessible to all willing participants.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Troy LeCaire is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is President and Co-Founder of the Cornell Political Union. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester. Submit your columns to [email protected].