Courtesy of Jason Koski/Cornell University

Cornell students criticized the new Interim Expressive Activity Policy, implemented during the free expression academic theme year.

February 11, 2024

Cornellians Express Concern, Comment on New Interim Expressive Activity Policy

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Approximately two weeks after Cornell announced its Interim Expressive Activity Policy, protestors participating in Thursday’s Coalition for Mutual Liberation divestment protest were referred to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards for disciplinary action.

As outlined in the new policy, the protestors failed to comply with the University’s “time, place and manner guidelines to ensure the ability of our faculty and students to teach and learn without disruption,” according to Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina.

The new policy, announced on Jan. 24, adds to Cornell’s current Political Campaign Activity regulations and the Campus Code of Conduct to regulate expressive activity on campus.

The new policy requires registration for all “indoor demonstrations, tabling or other expressive activity” and for outdoor events for groups over 50. The policy also places limitations on amplified sound, a two-week time limit on posters, signs and light projections and restrictions on items that can be used and carried in protests or events. 

The policy’s language centers on protecting public safety.

“Expressive activity may not compromise public safety, impede the free movement of people or vehicles, damage university property or interfere with regular university operations, as determined by the University,” the policy reads. 

Some members of organizations, including Luke O’Brien ‘27, a member of the Coalition for Mutual Liberation, disagree with the policy’s restrictions on organizing, gathering and campaigning. CML frequently holds pro-Palestinian protests, including eight events within four days in November.

“[The policy] is an attempt to stifle the organizing happening on campus,” O’Brien told The Sun. “No amplified sound? Such a decree comes from such a place of privilege — that the hostility people supposedly feel is some yelling.”

Tensions regarding the policy particularly emerged throughout the University Assembly’s open meeting to hear questions, comments and concerns regarding the policy on Tuesday, Feb. 6. 

At the meeting, Vice President and General Counsel Donica Varner said that the policy was created to facilitate a supportive and diverse educational environment.

“The policy was designed with an intentional educational focus to encourage individual responsibility within a diverse and pluralistic academic community,” Varner said. 

Many community members raised concerns regarding the ambiguity of the line: “Cornellians engaging in expressive activity are expected to conduct themselves responsibly and in accordance with this policy.”

The speakers particularly questioned what it meant for Cornellians to be “expected” to comply with the policy. 

“I would like to see the ambiguities removed,” said Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, industrial and labor relations. “In particular, the ambiguities around the word ‘expectation.’ If the University wants to suggest that groups register any event, then they can suggest that and make clear explicitly in any policy that there is no requirement to register an event.”

Prof. Yuval Grossman, physics, agreed with Lieberwitz.

“Rather than say, ‘Hey, we’ll give you a guideline,’ I think it should [say] something very, very clear,” Grossman said. 

Varner clarified that registration for outdoor gatherings is a strong request rather than an essential precondition.

“We’re asking for and have set an expectation but not a requirement that protest activity in certain outdoor locations involving 50 or more people be registered so that we can provide the appropriate support for those activities,” Varner said. 

Upon further questioning about whether the policies were obligatory, Varner also confirmed the Interim Expressive Policy was considered under Section H: “Failure to Comply” in the Student Code of Conduct, meaning that students who fail to abide by these policies will face repercussions.

President Martha Pollack emphasized the policy is intended to promote rather than restrict free expression in a Thursday, Feb. 8 public statement.

“These measures aim to ensure all Cornellians can express and hear opposing viewpoints while being safeguarded against behavior that seeks to silence speech,” Pollack wrote.

However, some speakers asserted the policy stifles free expression. 

“I grew up in a country both socialist and authoritarian, and I can smell authoritarianism,” said Prof. Saida Hodžić, anthropology and feminist, gender and sexuality studies. “And this smells like authoritarianism.”

Individuals who wish to give input regarding the new policies are encouraged by the University to contact the University Assembly as they finalize the policies in the upcoming weeks.

“I can’t foresee how [the policy] will impact things,” O’Brien said. “I’m sure the University will attempt to stifle action, but these universities did the same during Vietnam, and students remained steadfast through those repressive policies.”