Michael Wenye Li / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Following the assault of a black student in Collegetown on Friday,

September 17, 2017

Student Assembly Members Mull Hate Speech Ban Following Racially Charged Incidents

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In the wake of two racially-charged incidents, including one that sent a black Cornell student to the hospital on Friday, some members of the Student Assembly are considering a push to ban “hate speech” on campus.

Several S.A. members and other student leaders will meet on Sunday night to discuss, among other things, whether to forbid hate speech at the University, S.A. members told The Sun.

Assemblymembers Matt Indimine ’18 and Mayra Valadez ’18 have been working together to draft changes to the Campus Code of Conduct that would aim to curtail hate speech. Any addition to the Code regarding speech would need President Martha Pollack’s approval.

“It’s disgusting that hate speech like this is not followed up with repercussions,” Valadez said at a Sept. 7 meeting, referring to an incident where a Latino Living Center resident heard a fraternity member say “let’s build a wall around the LLC,” The Sun previously reported.

Varun Devatha ’19, S.A. executive vice president, wrote on Facebook that he supports the effort to amend the Code, but it is unclear where the push currently stands. Devatha, Indimine and Valadez have all been working behind-the-scenes to push an amendment to the Code, but no resolution has been drafted or presented to the S.A., nor has one been presented to the public.

S.A. members are hoping to get community input on Sunday at 8:15 p.m. in eHub, where some members will meet to discuss their approach to hate speech. The meeting is not officially a S.A. meeting, but rather one that assemblymember Joe Anderson ’20 described as part of a “community input phase.”

“In light of recent disgusting bias incidents involving white supremacy on our campus, and the ever-clear need for administrative change around hate speech/bullying, student leaders across campus are calling a meeting to discuss potential options for policy change,” reads a statement on the public Facebook page for the meeting, hosted by Indimine and Valadez.

Indimine said he and others are considering an attempt to curtail hate speech with an amendment to the Code, but that effort, which needs presidential approval, would likely be a long-shot given Pollack’s public comments regarding free speech.

Indimine and other members are considering additional options, such as an anti-hate-speech policy that S.A. would ask student organizations to adopt, he said. Valadez did not respond to a request for comment.

Some S.A. members who support the potential ban, but anticipate dissent, are trying to formulate a definition of forbidden “hate speech” that would be palatable to the University community. Devatha suggested that a subcommittee of the body tasked with reviewing proposed changes to the Code — the University Assembly’s Codes and Judicial Committee — or a task force could work on defining “hate speech.”

“That definition must be something that protects students, but is approved by the faculty/staff,” Devatha told The Sun in a message. “The administration could potentially use a poor definition to shut students down.”

But the S.A. does not have the power to amend the Code on its own, and its effort may run against principles of freedom of speech. Hateful speech is protected by the First Amendment, and students’ rights organizations, like the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, largely counsel against banning hateful speech.

“In order for speech to be truly free, speech that conveys deeply offensive messages, including hate, must be protected,” FIRE says on its website. “A free people have recourse to reason, evidence, outrage, and moral witness against such speech, but do not need to turn to coercive power to silence it.”

An effort to amend the Code to forbid hate speech was made 10 years ago, but it “soundly failed,” Prof. Kevin Clermont, law, a drafter of the Code, told The Sun. And rightly so, Clermont said.

Defining hate speech “introduces terrible line-drawing problems, and will lead to punishing speech not deserving of punishment and chilling worthwhile speech,” Clermont said. “It empowers the majority to suppress the minority.  Let the majority express its will by social pressure, not by legal means.”

Sarah Park ’20, the S.A.’s vice president of external affairs, is the only voting member of the U.A.’s Codes and Judicial Committee who also serves on the S.A. and said the committee has not received a resolution. The process is still in “super preliminary stages,” she said.

If the CJC passes an amendment to the Code, both the U.A. and President Pollack, who has pledged to defend free speech, would have to approve the amendment for it to go into effect.