The right to speak on Cornell’s campus is a “paramount value,” one upon which the University has an “essential dependence,” according to the Campus Code of Conduct. In fact, the administration is so committed to free speech that even finding a speaker’s cause to be “evil” would not justify suppressing that speaker — doing so, the University writes, would be “inconsistent with a university’s purpose.”
But some groups that have hosted conservative speakers on campus are not buying the administration’s rhetoric, citing the thousands of dollars they have been asked to pay the University for security at their events.
And they say it is a cost that hosts of conservative speakers disproportionately have to bear.
“The University, through its current policy — intentional or not — imposes additional financial and administrative costs on groups wishing to host conservative speakers,” said Troy LeCaire ’17, president of the Cornell Political Union.
Several weeks ago, CPU made a lecture by Tea Party activist Michael Johns private after the University discovered that students planned to protest Johns’s speech and subsequently charged the group $1,700 for security. The charge would have bankrupted the union, which receives only $1,000 in funding per semester.
Of the nearly 20 speakers CPU has brought to campus, all of these speakers — including those who, like Johns, are not Cornell professors — have been liberal, LeCaire said.
“We have hosted someone who worked in the Obama administration, a former U.S. General under President Obama, and quite specifically, two Democratic politicians from the New York State Assembly, including the Speaker, arguably the most powerful Democratic state official,” LeCaire said. “I think Michael Johns was our first speaker who could be considered right of center.”
Johns was also the first speaker in CPU’s history that came with a security fee, according to LeCaire.
The Cornell Republicans are no stranger to these fees either. Last semester, the group was charged $5,000 — an entire semester’s worth of funding — to secure the infamous Rick Santorum event, where protesters repeatedly shouted down the former United States Senator during his speech, according to Olivia Corn ’19, the group’s president.
The Cornell Republicans also paid security fees in the hundreds of dollars for its fall 2015 and spring 2016 speakers — political activist Ward Connerly ($228) and FOX News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle ($472.50), respectively, according to the group’s former president, Mark LaPointe ’16.
Neither LaPointe nor Corn could recall a security fee anywhere near the $5,000 for Santorum, but both agreed that the 2016 election was a contributing factor to the exceptional cost.
Meanwhile, the Cornell Democrats have not payed anything in security fees to the University within the past few years, according to Kevin Kowalewski ’17, the group’s president.
“During my time at Cornell, no, the Cornell Democrats have not had to pay the [U]niversity for security at any event where we brought a speaker. We have never been informed that this was necessary,” Kowalewski said.
Corn said that the University’s security fees “foste[r] the shutting down of free speech,” and added that making student groups pay for security is irresponsible on the University’s part.
“It’s not my job to make sure the students of this University are safe. It’s the University’s job,” Corn said.
LeCaire said that the University’s policy precludes CPU from inviting the full range of speakers it would like to.
“I think we want to invite more conservative speakers. Whether or not we’ll have the capacity to is uncertain,” LeCaire said. “If Rick Santorum cost $5,000 [in security fees], there is no way we can afford to invite Rick Santorum or anyone of similar stature. So basically we’re limited to low-profile conservative people.”
For Corn, what is equally frustrating is that other College Republican groups have told her that their universities generally cover security costs for high-profile, controversial speakers.
Last month, NYU paid around $10,000 to secure a lecture hosted by the NYU College Republicans, according to the NYU group. The group itself had to pay nothing.
The Penn College Republicans told The Sun that Penn provides free “open expression monitors” that “are essentially security that protects from disruptions.” But the group would have to foot the bill for any security beyond these monitors, according to the Penn Republicans. The Columbia Republicans also pay for its own security, according to the group.
Cornell’s leadership maintains that its policy “is similar to policies in place at many of our peer institutions” and “reflects the reality of demands on the Cornell University Police.”
Cornell is not the first school to impose high security costs on groups bringing controversial speakers. As early as 2009, FIRE — a nonpartisan free speech advocacy group — called security fees “the new censorship tool of choice among administrators,” according to FIRE’s website. Security fees have not always been used against conservative speakers either.
Last September, DePaul University charged a budding student socialist group — the DePaul Socialists — hundreds of dollars for police officers to protect the group’s first fall meeting, according to FIRE.
In a petition to DePaul’s administration, the DePaul Socialists wrote that the security fee “effectively discourages groups that work independently of the university administration from bringing speakers to campus, denying students the right to choose from whom they learn.”
Both Corn and LeCaire said that the University was only part of the problem. The other part, they said, was general intolerance for conservative views on a liberal campus.
“There’s just a lack of tolerance for conservatives in general [on campus]. The day after the election I was assaulted. I didn’t even support Donald Trump. I have random people come up to me all the time and yell in my face about how I’m a dreg on a society. The newest thing — that I hate — I have people coming up to my dorm room to have 30 minute conversations with me about why they dislike what I believe in,” Corn said.
And neither Corn nor LeCaire see a comparable movement to suppress speech on the right.
“I don’t think there is an equivalent on the right. It’s solely limited to liberal students, that certain ideas are so reprehensible, are so immoral — or at least they are perceived to be this way — that they should not be given a platform. I think that’s dangerous,” LeCaire said, before clarifying that he would not invite people to campus like Richard Spencer, whose views are “so fringe and so
But from one protester’s perspective, the true danger lies in the views that some conservative speakers bring to campus.
“Many conservative policies directly threaten minority students at Cornell. Fear of Cornell students being empowered by far-right rhetoric is a safety concern,” said Julian Goldberg ’19, who was one of the protesters inside the Santorum event. “While understanding these views can be valuable, it is important that they are always presented in a stigmatized context, so that no one is confused about what is acceptable on this campus.”
The Next Step
LeCaire said that the experience of CPU and the Cornell Republicans in trying to bring conservative speakers to campus should cause the University to reflect on its policy.
“We need to take a look at our policies and ask ourselves, ‘Are we being accepting of all ideologies?’ I think the answer is no, and if everyone agrees with me then changes need to be made,” LeCaire said.
For CPU’s part, the group “will continue to work to ensure that our speaker lineup represents true ideological diversity, not just what this campus considers mainstream,” LeCaire said.
The Cornell Republicans, despite having taken a financial hit with Santorum last semester, plan to bring another high-profile speaker to campus this semester.
And Corn thinks that the forthcoming spring 2017 speaker could elicit an “even worse” reaction from the campus due to past controversy surrounding the speaker.