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October 9, 2020

SAMILOW | Free and Open Discourse is an Indispensable Feature of Good Education

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In the wake of the sustained protests and civil unrest over the summer, the dormant debate regarding “hate speech” has reemerged on Cornell’s campus. Over the summer, students called for the dismissal of Prof. William A. Jacobson, Law,  for an article he wrote critiquing the Black Lives Matter movement as well as for the termination of Prof. David Collum, Chemistry, for a series of offensive comments and jokes he made on his personal Twitter account. While the University has tepidly defended the rights of its faculty to express their private views, it is abundantly clear that many students and faculty, and indeed the editorial board of this newspaper, believe that the University should play some role in regulating “hate speech.”

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time at Cornell or any other university. Last year, a survey of college students conducted by the Knight Foundation revealed that a majority of college students believe that it is sometimes acceptable to “shout down” speakers to prevent them from talking and over forty percent do not believe the First Amendment should cover “hate speech.”

Their reasoning is simple — the emotional wellbeing of students and their right to feel comfortable is more important than the right to free speech. They see it as decidedly inhumane to value a professor’s right to publish provocative articles over the security and comfort of those offended by that speech. As a result, they believe that they and their institutions have the right, perhaps even the moral imperative, to suppress speech they deem hateful or harmful. But as much as some students may wish to cloister themselves from speech they find uncomfortable, no serious academic institution can accede to such demands. To do so would be educationally unsound and a betrayal of the university’s foundational principles. At the very heart of education is the idea that students need to be challenged, to consider opposing arguments and, if they remain unconvinced by them, to rebut them with well-constructed arguments of their own. Learning to confront and relate to people with opposing views is one of the greatest life skills college can provide.

At the outset, it must be noted that this approach to free expression does not assert that all speech is appropriate. It, of course, isn’t. All students and faculty must take care in choosing what to say, both in the classroom and in their private lives. But allowing the University or certain students to determine what speech is acceptable presents far thornier questions than trusting members of the Cornell community to express themselves respectfully and responsibly. 

The good news is that at an institutional level, Cornell University has recognized this reality. Top administrators have recently reaffirmed the institution’s belief in the importance of protecting free expression. Last March, Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina told The Sun that “free speech is an essential part of Cornell University’s commitment to the discovery of truth” and that “Cornell has and will uphold the principle of freedom of expression on our campuses.” President Pollack has similarly voiced deep reservations about the effects of limiting speech, noting that “as soon as you start suppressing speech, you open the question of who gets to decide … and we know, historically, that never goes well.”  

The bad news is that recent history has shown that this rhetorical commitment is, as a column in The Sun observed last year, rarely reflected in the University’s actions. Underneath the perfunctory reassurances from administrators, it has become apparent that Cornell has fallen victim to the epidemic of self-censorship and intolerance plaguing much of academia. Three years ago, President Pollack asked who would decide what speech is acceptable. The answer has become all too clear: A group of very vocal, self-identified radical students with an extremely narrow conception of acceptable speech.

These students have been very busy.  Just within the past four years, former Senator Rick Santorum, speaking at Statler Hall , was shouted down and “met with jeers, boos and vocal protests.” Despite the protests clearly violating the Code of Conduct, the University took no action. A year later, protestors disrupted an event hosted by the Cornell Political Union featuring conservative commentator Michael Johns Sr., an event that had been made private after the University demanded the Union pay exorbitant security fees to keep the event public. Once again, the University chose not to hold the rule breakers accountable. History repeated itself in May 2018 with an organized effort to destroy tickets to an event with Vice President Dick Cheney. Again, Cheney’s remarks were disrupted by protestors and the University took no action. The chilling effect of these actions is not limited to these events. In classes and social interactions, those who dissent from the progressive orthodoxy routinely express fear of sharing their views.

The intolerance for disfavored viewpoints has even trickled down into organizations whose missions are to support free and open discourse. In the spring of 2019, the Cornell Political Union decided to disinvite conservative speaker Jannique Stewart from a proposed event on abortion. It rescinded the invitation after discovering that Stewart held other socially conservative views that its members might find offensive. The absurdity is hard to grasp: The executive board of an organization dedicated to bridging the political divide was afraid to expose its members to social conservatism.

Once again, it’s essential to note that free speech absolutism is not an endorsement of all speech. Plenty of speech lacks educational value, is offensive and would be better off left unexpressed. All students and faculty share an obligation to be responsible about what they say and who they bring to campus. But at Cornell, the invocation of “hate speech” has too often been an easy pretext to discriminate against those who express legitimate political opinions unpopular at Cornell. Therein is the inherent danger of placing students or administrators in the position of subjectively determining what speech is offensive. Every person will have a different definition and it simply becomes a means of disfavoring speech one dislikes. Such power is ripe for abuse and incompatible with the notion of the university as a marketplace of ideas.

George Orwell once said that “if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” That right is in serious peril at Cornell and at universities across the country. On the basis of subjective interpretations of what speech is harmful, many students are attempting to assert a heckler’s veto over what ideas and viewpoints are permissible for discussion. If Cornell’s devotion to freedom of expression is to mean anything, it must be a commitment in both rhetoric and deed. Cornell must actively defend the rights of those expressing unpopular opinions and continually remind students that the free exchange of ideas is at the core of their educational growth and development.

Matthew Samilow is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at mas748@cornell.edu. On Malott’s Front Steps runs every other Friday this semester