February 21, 2017


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To the Editor:

It is unfortunate that Cornell students attempted to silence conservative speaker Michael Johns, rather than challenge his arguments in the marketplace of ideas.  Not only does this reflect a disturbing trend of intolerance for unpopular speech on elite college campuses, but it reveals either indifference or amnesia to the efforts of many generations of progressive students and faculty who fought for the rights of unpopular individuals and groups to be heard.  Liberal democracy is not possible without the civil exchange of ideas, not matter how unpalatable.

Far more concerning than the conduct of a handful of students, however, is the university’s decision to require the Cornell Political Union to either pay $2000 in security fees or to close the event to the public.  Doing so creates a classic “heckler’s veto” in which opponents of free speech can use the threat of violence or intimidation to control which ideas enter the marketplace.  It is certainly understandable that the university requires tight security for controversial events.  However, the cost of such safety measures should be part distributed evenly among all students though their tuition payments.  While individual students may not wish to attend any particular speech, and may disagree strongly with its content, the university community as a whole benefits from ensuring the free exchange of ideas—even if many students consider these specific ideas to be wrong-headed or pernicious.

Jacob M. Appel MD, JD
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine