Max Fattal, Julia Nagel, Michael Weyne Li and Jason Wu

March 26, 2024

POLLACK | CML’s Disruptive Protests Go Too Far

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In light of ongoing protests by the Coalition of Mutual Liberation — a group that has stated its intention to repeatedly disrupt the activities of the University — The Cornell Daily Sun has published several letters from our faculty colleagues that support the rights of these students, staff and faculty to violate expressive activity policies at Cornell, both the Interim Expressive Activity Policy and pre-existing policies, particularly rules preventing the disruption of classroom teaching, studying in the library and other university activities. 

While we understand and respect the passion underlying this support, and deeply respect the faculty who have written, we feel compelled to publicly express a different position. By calling for the administration of Cornell to ignore disruptive protests and disregard enforcement of rules that govern expressive conduct, our colleagues neglect our collective responsibility to protect the rights of all community members to teach and learn in a non-disruptive environment. Protecting these rights is not just required by federal law: It is also our obligation, consistent with our core values, to foster a community that is welcoming and caring, “where students, faculty and staff with different perspectives, abilities, and experiences can learn, innovate, and work in an environment of respect.” Disruptive protests by some trample on the rights of others to enjoy that environment of respectful learning and work.

We can and should have a robust campus discussion about what “disruptive” means:  how much is tolerated in support of free expression and where the line is drawn. But the notion that some protestors can violate the rights of others because they “have disrupted business as usual to protest the University’s conduct amid the horrifying, ongoing assault on Palestinian populations,” or because “… the purpose of protest is precisely to disrupt” and “a non-disruptive protest is no protest at all,” is one that privileges some in our community with more rights than others. We would ask our colleagues: If the rules governing expressive activity are not content-neutral, who makes the decision about which causes are sufficient to accept disruption of the rights of others? And in all cases, how much infringement on the rights of others is acceptable?

If we are to foster a community of belonging, we need to respect and balance everyone’s rights. That is not always easy, and it does not mean that disruptive protests should be met with sanctions that are so severe that they chill free expression by subjecting protestors to draconian punishments. But it does mean that actions that infringe on the rights of others must have consequences. We have stated and are moving forward with our plan to convene a group of faculty, staff and students that includes members of our shared governance bodies, to consider how we can continue to evolve thoughtful principles of conduct that value and respect the rights of our community to freely and vigorously express their views, while also establishing the points at which that expressive activity infringes on the rights of others.  

President Martha E. Pollack

— Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff