March 28, 2019

JOHNS | Making Free Speech Rhetoric Free Speech Reality

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President Trump last week signed an executive order that links federal research and education grants for colleges and universities to their unwavering commitment to “[promoting] free inquiry.” Translation: The long-standing progressive censorship game at colleges and universities is now over. Universities and colleges will immediately cease shutting down, impeding or permitting the disruption of conservative speakers, or now risk losing billions of federal research dollars that are generously given away each year to these institutions of higher learning.

It is unfortunate that such an order has become a confrontational stance on America’s campuses, but academia has sadly reached that point. Young America’s Foundation, for instance, favorably settled a lawsuit over this precise issue with the University of California, Berkeley last December. UC Berkeley, facing a constitutional challenge to its speaking protocols, agreed to abolish its “high-profile speaker policy” and speaking fee schedule while implementing a policy that ensures that heckling protesters will no longer be permitted to shut down speakers on campus.

Note to Cornell administrators: The outrageous speaker policy that UC Berkeley found indefensible even in the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Court, far and away the most liberal federal judicial court in the nation, is essentially indistinguishable from that of Cornell’s.

President Trump’s executive order was an ideal time for Cornell to acknowledge its historical deficiencies in protecting conservative speakers and to offer a fresh commitment to reassessing what it can do to better protect freedom of speech. Instead, the administration dodged this responsibility as if its past record was impeccable.

“Free speech is an essential part of Cornell University’s commitment to the discovery of truth,” Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina told The Sun earlier this week, noting absurdly that the University (emphasis added) “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.”

Let’s just walk through a short history of this purported institutional commitment to free speech.

In Nov. 2016, when former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) visited campus, he was nearly unable to complete his lecture, “often forced to pause his talk when his comments were met by jeers, boos and vocal protests,” as The Sun then reported. The disruptions were clear-cut violations of the Campus Code of Conduct, specifically the right of “the speaker’s ability to be heard” and “the right of others to listen” (Art. III, Sec. A, Clause 2). Yet, not one of these protesters was asked to leave the auditorium, and none were subsequently held accountable for their hugely disruptive and suppressive actions.

In Feb. 2017, apparently emboldened by the University’s refusal to hold Santorum’s disruptors accountable, the University again did nothing as campus radicals yelled epithets and demanded entry to the lecture hall in which my father, a national Tea Party movement co-founder and former presidential speechwriter, was speaking. The originally public event was forced to become a private one after the University sought to impose thousands of dollars in security fees on the Cornell Political Union, which was sponsoring the event. This time, the disruptors were even caught on video. Yet the University did nothing to hold them accountable for again blatantly violating the Campus Code of Conduct.

In May 2018, the Cornell Republicans were honored to host the 46th Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney. As with the previous two events, Cheney was disrupted repeatedly by protesters. Outrageously this time, as The Sun then documented, the event was threatened by a campaign to destroy tickets with the stated goal of diminishing the event’s turnout.

Did the University’s publicly articulated “commitment” to free speech and a speaker’s right to be heard lead it to aggressively investigate and hold the perpetrators of this scheme responsible? No. In fact, as the student-led attempt to limit Vice President Cheney from being heard unfolded, not one administration official offered even one word of condemnation on these actions.

Finally, as The Sun reported earlier this week, the Cornell Political Union was apparently forced to disinvite a pro-life Christian speaker, Jannique Stewart, over fears of unwarranted reprisal from the same sorts of individuals who have proactively opposed and attempted to prevent nearly every right-of-center speaking visit since at least 2016. Historical precedent, CPU surmised, suggested that the University was likely to impose a prohibitive security fee, which seemingly led the organization to cancel the event. Whether CPU could afford to pay the fee or not, the mere presence of these routinely disruptive radicals — combined with the University’s documented record of doing nothing to hold them accountable — clearly had a chilling effect.

The problems with Cornell’s political culture, and especially the prohibitive impact of the University’s guest speaker and security fee policy, are issues that unify students throughout campus and across the political spectrum. In an editorial last month, The Sun echoed these widely-held sentiments: To be a university truly committed to free speech, as the administration insists it is, it must “ditch the security fee entirely.” The Sun also importantly exposed the ways which the University has routinely permitted a small number of campus radicals to threaten an event’s disruption and then, as opposed to restraining and disciplining these hecklers, instead has penalized the sponsoring organization by demanding excessive security fees they know these student groups seldom can afford.

Cornell University is now on notice — from no less than the President of the United States — that since it and other universities have been unwilling to protect conservative free speech, it will pay the deep price of losing billions of dollars in federal research money should it refuse to do so in the future. It is worth noting that these billions in federal grants are not provided by institutions whose values mimic those of these anti-discourse students. In fact, these grants are provided by hardworking American taxpayers, many of whom are among the 63 million Americans who voted for President Trump in 2016. Should the Cornell administration acknowledge these realities now, they will find conservative-leaning campus organizations and the speakers they sponsor hugely reasonable and eager to partner with the University in protecting free speech. But let’s end the message spin: That commitment has not existed to date.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.