February 8, 2024

SCHWARZ & SPARACIO | Free Speech on Campus?

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Rebecca: Let us discuss the issue of freedom of speech, an issue which has been troubling us both and which has several aspects.

Dan: Free speech — that is, expressing opinions without government intervention or legal sanctions — is a universal right that is enshrined in Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

Free speech is an accepted human right, but it does not mean one can say anything at any time. Free speech is provisional and fungible; it is defined by context and depends on the situation.

This semester will test how universities and colleges maintain free speech and lively discourse on controversial issues without tolerating hate speech or allowing faculty to use classes to forward political agendas.

University leadership must staunchly defend what universities do in terms of encouraging opportunity and possibility for all students and fostering objective teaching and research.

I do think that elite universities need to be aware of the world we live in and communicate better what we do and why.

When I travel outside Ithaca and Manhattan, I realize there is another world between the coasts and beyond the hermetic world of elite universities.  What I learn when I listen to well-meaning people I meet is that we who live in the academic enclaves of places like Cornell cannot patronize those who think what we mean by free speech has a strong leftist polemic slant and that DEI (Diversity, Equality and Inclusion) is a threat that undermines merit. These people may believe that because of DEI their children or grandchildren did not get accepted at elite schools or get the jobs that they sought.  Universities need stress that DEI includes everyone, including those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those who are physically challenged.

While Cornell has had a fraught fall semester, if Oct. 6, 2023 is “one” and chaos is “10,” we have never gone past 3.5. Yes, there have been troubling instances, but no one has been physically hurt by our intense disagreements. Yes, some students have been uncomfortable in regrettable ways, but some discomfort is necessarily part of life for all of us. 

Rebecca: I first became interested in the issue of free speech on campus when Ann Coulter was shouted off the stage at a talk she gave on campus on Nov. 10, 2022. Coulter was brought to campus by a conservative women’s group but was shouted down in an organized demonstration of so-called “progressive” individuals. 

The Student Assembly also attempted to pass a resolution that would mandate trigger warnings. This was a serious threat to free expression that President Pollack immediately vetoed

Trigger warnings can infantilize people, including those haunted by past traumas, and prevent them from choosing to reckon with them in the manner that they choose. Mandating trigger warnings would have been an authoritarian move and the Student Assembly acted on passion to protect others from triggering material rather than on reason.

Dan: Yes, I concur. An anecdote: I always announce when I am going to discuss sex in reading Manet, Picasso and D.H Lawrence and allow anyone to leave the room. No one has in 56 years, but the students pay better attention.

More importantly, if we as professors are dealing with sensitive subjects such as torture, sadistic behavior and genocide — as I do in my Holocaust class — and have an audience that includes descendants of victims, we must try to present the material with some sensitivity.

In the disruption of Ann Coulter’s speech, you cite an example of the cancel culture, which threatens the open dialogue that is essential to free speech. By most standards, I am reasonably woke, but I am not an insomniac. I do not agree with “wokeness” when it imposes a kind of censorship by disrupting speakers.

I strongly resist the Right’s effort to suppress points of view that are sympathetic to DEI or when they cite extreme or distorted examples of the application of these principles. 

Skeptics are not always completely wrong about “woke” inflections under the guise of DEI. They are to my mind right to be troubled when a Cornell instructor, in violation of Cornell standards for holding classes, irresponsibly cancels the first meeting of class entitled “Race, Writing, and Power” in sympathy with Palestinians. This is an example when under the guise of free speech, a teacher veers into political re-education and does not consider the exclusionary nature of his/her/their behavior. 

In some cases, the exercise of free speech can become a kind of harassment to some listeners and, for that reason, we judiciously hold our tongues. Even those of us passionately supportive of “Black Lives Matter” perhaps thought to ourselves that fundamentally “Of course, but do not all lives matter?” But we didn’t respond that way out of respect for the fact that many African Americans — notably George Floyd but others, too — were victims of racism and criminal behavior on the part of the police. Now I think it is morally important for all of us to articulate that “Palestinian and Israeli lives matter equally.”

“From the River to the Sea” could describe an actual incident in the Caribbean that I witnessed, namely how boats were moored during a storm in a river and then how when the storm passed the boats were moved back to the sea. But in the current context, it is felt by Jews as a provocative and sometimes antisemitic call for the destruction of Israel and those who live there.

Rebecca: Based on the events that happened on campus, one could ask: “How could those espousing DEI embrace ‘from the river to the sea’” and other antisemitic speech and claim to be an inclusive culture?

What do you think of the Cornell Alliance for Free Speech group whose attacks — in letters to many members of the Cornell community and in media ads — on the Cornell administration are quite virulent?

Dan: In some cases, these are conservative wealthy donors who want to wind back the clock half a century. They use rightful disgust at antisemitism as a cover for opposition to their skewed interpretation of DEI as a program undermining merit. On the other hand, DEI has sometimes been a cover for shouting down speakers who have reasoned conservative views (as opposed to racists) and for various claims of micro-aggressions which  disguise a grievance that a given professor is not sufficiently praising a student’s work or that the professor has expectations that the complainant has not met.  

Rebecca: Yes, there is a real problem for free speech when we see that the same word has different meanings for people, especially in the context of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. In addition, we see the importance of context in general as a concept that shapes the meanings of words and governs certain ways of acting, including subscribing to forms of political correctness. It’s hard to define free speech if it depends on an ever-changing political context, on fluid definitions of words and the political moment. Part of this second point is the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. During the last semester, it seemed that anti-Zionism bled into antisemitism more than ever. What can be done about this? 

Dan: I have no ready answer. Free speech means one can express opinions without being arrested, but that does not mean that everything said or written is equally true, fair or judicious. Free speech includes the right to speak nonsensical, conspiratorial theories or make bizarre claims about Taylor Swift, for example. 

We hope that what we teach at Cornell and other major universities is the need to be informed, to weigh evidence, to know the difference between reasoned argument and passionate performance and to listen respectfully and thoughtfully to others. Our goal is to give our students the tools to participate in democracy.

Rebecca: I think that the gray area between the writer/speaker’s intention and the reader/listener’s response is also critical. 

We need to think about the possible conflict between the speaker’s intention and how the listener is affected. This is very apparent with the phrase “from the river to the sea,” which many pro-Palestinians argue is not uttered with antisemitic intent. Many Jewish listeners would say otherwise and have a rational reason to conclude that it is a call for Jews to be murdered. As a Jew, I found “from the river to the sea” to be antisemitic. I wondered when I passed pro-Palestinian protesters what they intended with these words. Some of them were my classmates and it felt uncomfortable to label them as antisemites. One sign, “Free Palestine At Any Cost,” struck me as particularly antisemitic.

Dan: Yes, I have argued that offensive speech, even hate speech, can come from both ignorance and malice and that it is difficult to separate the two, but alas they have the same effect. The problem is that I fear some students and faculty do not spend enough time reading and listening to reliable news sources and get their news from biased sources and uninformed friends. Perhaps we need to stress that students should spend a little less time on social media and more on getting informed.

I have suggested as a requirement a year-long history course with the first term an overview of the world and the second focusing on the most controversial issues. Right now, of course, the Israel-Palestine issue would be foregrounded, but which issues to be included would vary from year to year. 

Another aspect of free speech is a classroom climate where diverse views are encouraged rather than one where the examination of materials is shaped by the ideology of the teacher. Our Provost Mike Kotlikoff has wisely admonished: “[I]t is essential that faculty and instructors avoid the use of the classroom, scheduling or other academic activities to advance personal political views.” Unfortunately, I know many instances where that has not been the case in recent years.

Rebecca: I worry about sanitizing classrooms by eliminating texts some might find offensive. How do we teach works that are from different periods (and that means they have different views of gender, race, colonialism, etc.) to today’s woke generation? What happens if we are not susceptible to learning about the past because it is now considered offensive? One can also ask: “How are we supposed to reckon with the past if the past is shielded from us?” 

Dan: Which brings us to the subject of censorship where professors omit topics that are disturbing and where some conservative communities want to control classroom teachers’ presentations and ban library books. 

We might close with the topic of self-censorship. We all engage in self-censorship every day in our personal relationships and in our dialogues. If self-censorship means holding our tongue before we speak and being considerate of the feelings of others, it is not something to worry about. If it means not expressing opposition to views we regard as heinous because we are afraid to offend a professor and other students or members of a campus or community group seeking to control free exchanges of ideas in schools and libraries, then it is a source of great concern.

We might conclude that free speech does not allow for hate speech whether from ignorance or malice but is an evolving, fluid concept depending on good will and human decency.

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023-2024 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

Rebecca Sparacio is a senior in The College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Space Between is a discussion on student life, politics and community. She can be reached at [email protected].

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