What is free speech? We often proclaim its importance, but rarely is it defined. Free speech is when everyone, yes everyone, has the ability to speak and be heard respectfully. Shouting down speakers we disagree with is antithetical to free speech. In an academic environment such as Cornell, it is of fundamental importance to engage in various debates and to allow for a variety of opinions. This is how knowledge is created. For those who disagree with lecturers, allowing them to speak is how misguided beliefs can be brought to face the test of reason.
In defending free speech, true free speech, and in trying to assist in the upholding of the Campus Code of Conduct, I videotaped protesters who were trying to stop Michael Johns, a co-founder of the Tea Party, from expressing his viewpoints. I videotaped them as they were clearly violating the Campus Code of Conduct, a point to which the protestors themselves later admitted, and I wanted to gain evidence of their actions. I would normally reserve myself and expect the proper authorities to take judicial action, but from my role as chair of the Codes and Judicial Committee in conversation with the judicial offices of the University, I learned that the police are not directly charged with enforcing the Code;rather, the police merely act for public order and safety. It is the responsibility of every member of the community to make sure community members adhere to the Code. Additionally, I have noticed what I believe to be a failure of the administration to enforce the Code itself. The administration does not want to engage in conflict with protesters. Senior members of the judicial process have confirmed this fact with me.
The protesters have mounted a smear campaign of character assassination against me because I was the first person to ever really stand up and speak out about the imbecility of their improper actions. They have claimed that I invoked my authority as an elected official to gain authority while videotaping them. While I did mention that I was chair of the Codes and Judicial Committee, this was only in response to their question of what specifically I was elected to and how I knew what the requirements of the Code were related to protesting.
Many people advised me that it would have been in my best political interest to apologize, so I would not be removed as chair of the CJC. While it would have been in my best interest politically, it would have been a lie — I do not regret any of my actions. I simply videotaped a violation of the Code in order to uphold free speech on campus, and answered the protestors’ question truthfully and in a straightforward manner. One might think this failure to apologize is unreasonable, but sometimes the truth is not naturally pleasing to our psychological drives to compromise.
This scuffle illustrates a broader and more important point. If conservative students were protesting the mere ability of a liberal lecturer to speak, the campus would find their actions despicable. But the reverse, which regularly occurs, does not seem to bother the community. Many people simply claim that “fascists” should not be allowed to speak and this is the end of it. For liberals, I would suggest they look up the word “liberal.” It represents an openness to ideas and opinions. As an academic community we must hear from those whose perspectives differ from our own. We must have more faculty on campus, for example, that represent these distinct viewpoints. I sponsored a resolution that would have promoted ideological diversity and free speech. The SA voted it down, and a week later, with no hint of irony, decried my actions on the basis that they prohibited free speech and hampered the intellectual diversity of campus community members. Diversity of thought is part of diversity, whether liberals want it to be or not. On the other hand, I do concede that we must allow for protests in order to hear protesters’ opinions as well. I have consistently supported respectful and legal protests in all of my time in governance at Cornell.
We must practice what we preach. While we claim to adhere to due process before issuing a verdict, the University Assembly had motions to remove me before even hearing my perspective. The Sun articles were extremely powerful in shaping people’s opinions, which were hard to change after being framed in such a negative way. The University Assembly almost didn’t let witnesses speak who supported me, and they did not review the video of the incident before making a decision to remove me. This undeniably shows how the decision of the University Assembly was purely political. Members were upset that I stood up against protestors, even though it was completely within my rights, and some have admitted that privately. Many have admitted that I did not do anything “technically” wrong, but the mere fact that I didn’t apologize was the reason they removed me, as a few protesters had their feelings hurt that I videotaped them. I remain firm and content with my decision to not apologize. I will not apologize for defending free speech and the truth, and I will continue to record and report instances where I see Code violations.
I was removed for defending free speech, upholding the Campus Code of Conduct and not allowing the ignorance of a few ruin the intellectual inquiry of many. If that’s a sin, I’m a sinner.
Mitch McBride is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is a member of the University Assembly. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.