March 11, 2024

GUEST ROOM | Anthropology Faculty Statement Against the Interim Expressive Activity Policy

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Dear students,

We write in response to the issues you raised, and to say that we share your concerns about Cornell’s “Interim Expressive Activity Policy,” which places significant limitations on political speech across our campus. This policy also prescribes disciplinary action for members of our community who exercise the very rights to “free expression” that the University administration has asked us all to celebrate this year. At a moment that demands that we care more, not less, about each other and the world around us, the fact that the administration seems intent on intimidating students, staff, and faculty and discouraging us all from exercising basic rights is deeply troubling. 

The administration claims to support protest as long as it does not “disrupt” university operations. There is an absurdity to this claim, given that the purpose of protest is precisely to disrupt — to disrupt routinization, to disrupt apathy, to foreground a problem. A non-disruptive protest is no protest at all. Even bracketing this core confusion, we question the administration’s singular right to determine which disruptions count as problems and which count as solutions. Police surveillance of peaceful protests, as well as apparent efforts to intimidate students by taking down their names and NetIDs for the purpose of disciplinary actions that may include barring them from campus, clearly disrupt the mission of the University. More fundamentally, our lives and work have already been disrupted by world events and by the University’s response to those events. Protests and other expressive activities should be seen as a course correction: a signal that something is profoundly wrong and needs to change. This critical engagement with the world is precisely aligned with Cornell’s core commitment to fostering a campus where we might work toward a more just society. 

Even though the policy is “interim,” its punitive character has had a chilling effect across our campus. It has intensified the nervousness that students, faculty and staff have been feeling for months around political expression. The messaging around the policy wrongly claims that it is largely a consolidation of existing rules: It is far from that. The regulation of outdoor protest is a significant shift and reverses a student- and faculty-led effort to ensure freedom of speech. Moreover, the administration’s commitment to enforcing these policies is new in its intensity and especially concerning for its lack of clarity, which heightens the risk that it will be unevenly applied. We know the policy disproportionately threatens members of our community who are already vulnerable because of identity, legal status, precarious employment, doxxing or repression from a range of outside entities, including private funders and governments abroad. We know that many of you are concerned about your visas, health insurance, living stipends, basic standing at Cornell and the long-term implications of these measures for your ongoing studies. 

We cannot predict what policies will eventually be set in stone, nor can we protect you from all possible reprisals, but we can tell you what kind of community we want to be. We want to be engaged in the world beyond our books. We want to interrogate the policies that structure life on campus. We want to disrupt injustices that have become routine. We want you to know that we value the traditions of student protest that have brought us so many rights that we now take for granted, including at Cornell: the occupation of Willard Straight that led to Africana Studies, the sit-in at Day Hall that built Latino Studies, the encampments across campus that urged divestment from South Africa’s apartheid regime. And we want you to know that we will have your backs should you face disciplinary action for exercising your right to political expression — a right that we uplift in our department, as we affirmed in a public statement just last year.  

As faculty, we intend to act on these commitments: by being proactive in expressing our dissent about the Interim Policy and the repression of political speech across campus in general; by demanding accountability from all University bodies and cessation of intimidation by campus police; by promoting a departmental and campus climate that enables you to focus on your studies and that enhances your sense of belonging at Cornell; by counseling those of you who face disciplinary action as you interface with the administration; by testifying on your behalf at disciplinary hearings; by opening lines of communication not controlled by Cornell (we have already asked your AGSA representatives to collect alternate email addresses); and by being disruptive ourselves should any of you face suspension, expulsion, arrest or other serious consequences for peaceful protesting. 

We extend these same commitments to our departmental staff, who should not fear retaliation for their free expression — which University President Martha Pollack rightly calls an “indispensable condition” of life and work at Cornell University.

In solidarity,

Core Faculty of the Department of Anthropology
With supporting signatures from other faculty.

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