Last Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order stating that colleges and universities receiving federal research funding and education grants must uphold free speech and “avoid creating environments that stifle competing perspectives” or risk losing their funding.
Despite its land-grant colleges — which receive money from New York State — Cornell will likely operate as a private institution, avoiding susceptibility to the order while maintaining its own free speech standards, student leaders said.
The order, fully titled “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities,” states that its primary purpose is “to enhance the quality of postsecondary education by making it more affordable, more transparent, and more accountable.” The executive order has been criticized for being redundant with the First Amendment.
“My initial reaction was ‘why now?’ and ‘why is Trump reminding us of what we already know?’” Carson Sheinberg ’21 questioned. “I thought the order itself was extremely vague in terms of what it actually stipulated.”
Trump was surrounded by more than one hundred conservative student activists from various schools during the orders’ signing on Thursday, according to the Washington Post. Much of the support for the executive order stems from right-wing individuals and groups that have been barred from speaking on college campuses, the Post reported.
Two years ago, former editor of Breitbart News Milo Yiannopolous’ speech at the University of California, Berkeley, was cancelled hours before due to uproarious student protests, sparking a national discussion of free speech on college campuses. In response, President Trump tweeted, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
Conflicts regarding how to handle controversial speakers have also transpired on Cornell’s campus. Last year, the Event Management Planning Team attempted to create a new system in which the total Event Security Fee billed to organizations was dependent on the level of dissent the Cornell University Police Department anticipated. The higher the turnout of expected protests, the more money student organizations were expected to pay in security fees.
In 2017, the Cornell Political Union invited Michael Johns Sr., the National Tea Party movement co-founder and leader, to speak. The event was made private after CUPD asked the CPU to pay a $2,000 security fee, anticipating pushback and security concerns. The incident resulted in concerns and discussion about free speech at Cornell.
Michael Johns Jr. ’20, president of Cornell Republicans and son of Johns Sr., shared his reaction to Trump’s order. Johns is also a columnist at The Sun.
“My initial reaction was positive. Freedom of expression and open discourse is at risk on campuses throughout the country, and numerous speaking events and debates have been disrupted by forces attacking those values at Cornell just in the last few years,” he said.
“While this campus may not be legally bound by this declaration, Cornell should announce how it intends to protect free speech in light of the executive order,” Johns continued.
Weston Barker ’21, who served on a subcommittee of President Pollack’s Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate that addressed free speech, told The Sun that it was unlikely that the order would have much impact on Cornell, citing its relatively non-restrictive code of conduct. Weston also said that Cornell would likely be considered a private institution and therefore not subject to the order.
“Free speech is an essential part of Cornell University’s commitment to the discovery of truth,” Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina said in a statement. “Cornell has and will uphold the principle of freedom of expression on our campuses, and we will continue to ensure that all voices can be heard and that the dignity of all individuals is protected.”
President Martha Pollack has previously declared her commitment to protecting free speech, and the Cornell Code of Conduct contains specific provisions for free speech. Title Four, Article II of the code states that it is a violation “to disrupt or obstruct or attempt to disrupt or obstruct any speaker invited to appear on the campus by the University or a University-recognized organization.”
Last spring’s Subcommittee on the Regulation of Free Speech and Harassment worked to give President Pollack a set of recommendations — including “Harmonize the University’s Definitions of Harassment” and “Revise the Campus Code of Conduct to Make it Applicable to Student Conduct Only” — on policies concerning speech and harassment.
Sruthi Srinivasan ’21, another subcommittee member, doubted that the executive order “will have too much effect on the work that the subcommittee did last year.”
“Being a private institution, Cornell’s free speech policy is technically not bound by the First Amendment,” Srinivasan said. She noted that the executive order mentioned that the administration will encourage diverse debate by ensuring “compliance with stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech for private institutions.”
For Cornell, Srinivasan said that “it is necessary that members of the Cornell community adhere to the code that all Cornellians are already subject to.”
Barker also noted that the recommendations have not been made into policy yet, though they would not be “subject to scrutiny related to the order, so long as the University vows to uphold the policy it put into place.”
The order also discusses the “financial burden of higher education on students and their families,” and mentions goals to help students and families make more informed choices regarding financing education. It also makes the distinction that the federal funding at risk “[does] not include funding associated with Federal student aid programs.”