Over the last few weeks, the topic of free speech and expression at Cornell has garnered national attention following the Student Assembly’s resolution mandating content warnings and President Martha Pollack’s swift rejection. To continue discussing the topic of free speech, multiple conservative and non-partisan groups hosted an event featuring a speaker devoted to monitoring free speech issues.
On Thursday, Steven McGuire, the Paul and Karen Levy Fellow in Campus Freedom at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, spoke to Cornell students about protecting free expression on campus. The ACTA is an independent organization dedicated to promoting academic freedom and university accountability.
The event was hosted by the Cornell Republicans and the Cornell Review, which are both conservative student organizations, and the non-partisan Cornell Political Union. The event covered topics such as the conservative media pundit and author Ann Coulter’s ’84 early exit from her event at the University in November, the Cornell Administration’s recent firm ‘no’ to the Student Assembly’s ‘trigger warnings’ bill and the announcement of free expression as the official University theme of the 2023-24 academic year.
In his speech, McGuire listed rankings provided by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression — an organization whose mission is to defend free speech and free thought — that ranked American universities in categories related to freedom of speech. FIRE ranked Cornell as 158 out of 203 in the comfort university students have in expressing ideas and 188 out of 203 in the administration’s support for free speech.
For Max Whalen ’26, the freshman representative for the Cornell Republicans, this figure stuck out.
“I knew we had a problem with freedom of speech at Cornell, especially after the Ann Coulter event,” Whalen said. “These figures definitely confirmed this issue for me.”
Robert Platt ’73, J.D. ’76 said he invited McGuire to speak on campus out of concern for freedom of expression on campus.
“I’ve been watching the campus climate for 50 years now,” Platt said. “This is the worst it’s been.”
McGuire said that schools with little freedom of expression have low political and intellectual diversity. He also questioned the value of free expression in institutions where the majority of individuals think the same. In response to this issue, he discussed an initiative he helped develop through ACTA known as the Campus Freedom Initiative.
“We have created a 20-point program that outlines a plan for improving freedom of expression on campus, and Cornell has been the third university that we have launched this program at,” McGuire said.
ACTA’s program outlines specific steps for committing to a culture of free expression, fostering civil discourse, cultivating intellectual diversity, breaking down barriers to freedom of expression and advancing leadership accountability. For example, it recommends establishing free expression units as part of new-student orientation, protecting the rights of invited speakers to express their opinions and making intellectual diversity a stated goal in the hiring and promotion of faculty.
Avery Bower ’23, the president of the Cornell Republicans, commended ACTA’s program, as well as McGuire’s speech.
“McGuire took an equal-opportunity approach and appealed to folks on the left and right,” Bower said. “I enjoyed McGuire’s speech and hearing about ACTA’s recommendations on top of the vindication and victory President Pollack offered in shooting down the trigger warnings bill.”
Indeed, McGuire remarked in an interview with The Sun that the rejection of the trigger warnings proposal reflects a hopeful future for freedom of expression at Cornell.
“The rejection of the resolution about mandating trigger warnings and the plan to have a free expression theme for all of next year illustrate that Cornell seems to be a place where there are some issues, but there is also some promise,” McGuire said. “Cornell has a long history of devotion to open inquiry and diversity of thought and it has the capability to be the kind of school that models these qualities for other universities around the country.”
Correction, April 20, 10:28 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly named ACTA’s Campus Freedom Initiative. The article has been corrected to reflect the proper name of the initiative.