February 12, 2024

LIVINGSTON | There Is No Free Expression Without Disruptive Expression

Print More

This past Thursday, some hundred students orchestrated a peaceful “die in” in Mann library in protest of the University’s financial ties to companies profiting from Israel’s indefinite occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Students lay motionless on the library floor and read out the names of some of the tens of thousands of Palestinians killed in the conflict in Gaza. The protest was cleared by campus police within ten minutes. An unspecified number of students who participated in the protest now could be facing disciplinary review by the University. 

Recent years have seen a diverse and creative set of student protests at Cornell. Students occupied Day Hall to demand the University cut its contracts with Starbucks, blocked traffic on East Avenue to shame the University for its morally odious investments in fossil fuels and reenacted the 1969 occupation of Willard Straight Hall to demand greater hiring of faculty and staff of color, better mental health support for students and the creation of an anti-racism institute. The University administration did not simply tolerate these disruptive actions; they listened to students and responded. All three protests played a role in changing University policy. Cornell has committed to ending its partnership with Starbucks, to divesting from fossil fuels and launched an enormous anti-racism initiative transforming curriculum, research and student support. 

Why was this time different?

Thursday’s “die in” was the first test of the Interim Expressive Activity Policy introduced two weeks ago. The policy reiterates a set of existing policies defining the boundaries of free assembly and speech on campus and introduces a whole series of new ones. These include a stipulation that any protest over 50 people receive University pre-approval, narrowly restrict the use of amplified sound to a one-hour window and only in specific locations, forbid the use of paper or cloth for any sign or banner larger than 8×11 and bar the use of candles or any placards held on sticks. Students who assembled on the Agriculture Quad and lay on the floor of Mann Library could face disciplinary sanction for violating this policy. 

It should be noted that all of the above protests would now be prohibited on campus under this policy. The hundreds of students who engaged in them would now risk similar disciplinary review. 

Cornellians should be very concerned about this turn of events. These new rules are ripe for abuse to repress speech the administration considers inconvenient. The rules effectively tell students, staff and faculty alike that the administration will be exercising heightened surveillance of your political expression, has crafted new tools for making it harder for you to participate in the political life of campus and is not afraid to use its disciplinary powers to enforce its will. And all of this under the rubric of “the year of free expression.”

In a statement released after the protest on Thursday, the Office for University Relations illustrates the strange doublespeak required of the administration’s new policy of repressing speech in the name of speech. In one single sentence, it affirms students’ right to protest while forbidding all conduct that poses a disruption to campus life. The author seems to imagine an impossibly constricted vision of acceptable protest that students will inevitably fail to satisfy.

In this sense the statement bears the most disagreeable resemblance to a different document I studied with students in my class on civil disobedience this week, “A Call for Unity” issued by Alabama clergy in April 1963. The letter was a statement on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign of nonviolent direct action to desegregate Birmingham. Its liberal signers expressed their sympathy with Black protestors while decrying the disruption of their methods as an affront to rights of others. It was this self-serving argument that inspired Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous reflection about the nature of protest, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

It proved timely to reread King’s letter with students this week to remind us that a protest that does not pose any disruption is no protest at all. The very point of engaging in protest is to force before the public what they don’t want to hear. This is what King means when he describes the work of protestors as Socratic gadflies — annoying pests stirring us from slumber — who use their very bodies to occupy spaces they don’t belong and stage claims the public refuses to hear. 

When gay and lesbian activists in the early 1990s began publicly performing their own anticipated deaths from HIV/AIDS as the “die-in” in defiance of the federal government’s callous denial of the public health crisis, they sought to do more than simply express an opinion. They were courageously staging their vulnerability to nonviolently inconvenience their fellow citizens, block access to offices and laboratories and arrest the flow of an everyday life that was killing them, even if only for a few minutes. In these fugitive moments of disruption, these courageous activists created spaces where their voices could be heard. They sought to confront the public with a reality it tries hard to deny and invite a genuine dialogue that this policy’s bad faith demands for “civil” dialogue forecloses. 

Democracy needs disruption. Without it, the centripetal pull of political life takes more and more matters out of the people’s hands and places them in the internal and often unaccountable control of the institutions that govern us. Order is only one political good we always need to balance against others. Democratic states therefore have an obligation to tolerate a certain degree of disruptive protest, even a very high degree, in the name of democracy itself. 

It has been said that a democracy’s ability to tolerate disruptive demonstrations is an important test of its commitment to values like free expression. If the same can be said of universities, this week’s intolerance of even the relatively minor disruption posed by a “die in” should earn the Cornell administration a failing grade. 

Alexander Livingston, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government. His primary areas of research are democratic theory, social movements, religion and politics and the history of twentieth-century political thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

The Cornell Daily Sun is interested in publishing a broad and diverse set of content from the Cornell and greater Ithaca community. We want to hear what you have to say about this topic or any of our pieces. Here are some guidelines on how to submit. And here’s our email: [email protected].