Ming DeMers/Sun Senior Photographer

The Student Assembly unanimously passed a resolution supporting student free speech.

April 27, 2024

S.A. Unanimously Passes Resolution Supporting Student Protests

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On the first day of a pro-Palestine encampment on the Arts Quad, the Student Assembly unanimously passed a resolution supporting the rights of student protesters at its Thursday meeting.

At the same meeting, three administrators — Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Dean of Students Marla Love and Vice President and General Counsel Donica Varner — came to discuss the controversial Interim Expressive Activity Policy with student representatives, who expressed concerns about students’ ability to freely express their beliefs on campus. 

Support for Peaceful Protest, Regardless of Ideology

Resolution 77, which was sponsored by 20 campus and community organizations, formally supports the ability of students to freely express their opinions on campus.

The resolution highlights that the Assembly “stands in unity” with the demonstrations and encampment, not because all members explicitly agree with what is being protested for, but because they support students’ right to “protest on behalf of their beliefs.”

The resolution also condemns any disciplinary action taken against students during peaceful protests. Last month, 22 students were arrested after occupying Day Hall to advocate for divestment from weapons manufacturers, and on Friday, four students were temporarily suspended for staging an encampment on the Arts Quad. 

The resolution points to Cornell’s role in the divestment movement against South African apartheid.  In 1985, demonstrators enacted shantytown encampments, which led to about 100 student arrests. Over 1,000 students, faculty and staff were arrested across the entire movement.

The resolution asserts that the University has a history of suppressing “unpopular” free speech and that this behavior continues today. 

Resolution sponsor Karys Everett ’25, LGBTQIA+ liaison at-large, explained that the goal of the resolution’s adoption is to highlight that the broader Cornell community supports all forms of peaceful protest and students’ right to freedom of expression. 

“I think that we’re showing our student body that as their elected representatives, we do respect the right to protest and the administration is giving them pushback as individuals who are here to represent them — we stand with the right to protest regardless of their political beliefs,” Everett said.

In discussing the resolution, J.P. Swenson ’25, student trustee, said that while the University punitively punishing students for peaceful protest is unacceptable, there needs to be a clear distinction between what classifies as peaceful and what does not. 

“I don’t think that the entirety of the student body agrees that peaceful protests mean you’re allowed to go into a library for a long time making a lot of noise,” Swenson said. “If you go into a classroom with a massive speaker and just blast the speaker for three hours, that is an example where that is, in my sense, unacceptable.”

Executive Vice President Claire Ting ’25 said that protests are intended to be disruptive in order to achieve specific goals. 

“I think it’s kind of dangerous for undergrads trying to carve out the lines of what is considered peaceful protests or acceptable,” Ting said. “What is a protest if it is not subverting the norms to push against the status quo?”

Everett said that the resolution intends to support the right of all students to peacefully protest, regardless of ideology. 

“One day, if students come in here with a different belief than my own, and they are being penalized in the same way, I will be the first to advocate for them because I believe it’s very important for us to stand up for students’ rights,” Everett said.

Students Debate Interim Policy with Administrators

Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Dean of Students Marla Love and Vice President and General Counsel Donica Varner spoke about the Interim Expressive Activity Policy and directly answered questions from students.

The S.A. was originally scheduled to have this discussion on March 14, but all administrators besides Love were no-shows due to a calendar mixup.

Varner emphasized that while citizens of the United States have freedom of speech protections enshrined in the Constitution because the University is a private institution, the First Amendment does not necessarily apply in all circumstances.

Varner further explained that the purpose of time, place and manner guidelines on expression is to ensure that students and speakers can comfortably and freely express their opinions on campus. 

“Time, place and manner rules help us navigate [campus] tensions and collisions by ensuring that speakers have a place to share their ideas with people who want to hear them,” Varner said. “And that the people who do not want to be involved in that conversation are not … subjected to speech that they may find discriminatory.”

Vice President and General Counsel Donica Varner, Dean of Students Marla Love and Provost Michael Kotlikoff speak to members of the Student Assembly. (Ming DeMers/Sun Senior Photographer)

Kotlikoff added that the interim policy was enacted to consolidate and clarify existing policies, which were “all over the place.” 

While Kotlikoff acknowledged that many students have criticized the policy for being created rapidly, he highlighted that President Pollack has recently sent out invitations to several students and faculty to create a committee to finalize the policy in the upcoming months. 

Imani Rezaka ’24, college of arts and sciences representative, responded by calling the policy “fascist” and saying it has been utilized to target specific groups of students. 

“[The encampment] comes as there is constant escalation every month with the University using their blatantly fascist and oppressive Interim Expressive [Activity] Policy that was formed without any input from the Cornell community,” Rezaka said. “[It] has been used as a deliberate means to silence certain voices, especially Palestinians on this campus.”

This semester, members of both the Student Assembly and Faculty Senate criticized the creation process of the Interim Expressive Activity Policy, which they said neglected to adequately seek out the input of the shared governance branches.

Varner asserted that University policies do not target students from specific groups or with particular ideologies. 

“I want to challenge on a factual basis the assumptions that our policies have been directed to a particular [point of view] when in fact we have dealt with members of our community who’ve made it very clear that their goal is not to express a [particular point of view,] but to be as disruptive to the University community as possible,” Varner said. 

Love highlighted how as dean of students, she has worked with her team to ensure that students are aware of the policies of the University, no matter what groups they represent. 

“Every time my team goes into a space, and including the last academic year [with] pro-Palestinian rallies, demonstrations, protests [and] Jewish Zionist rallies, protests — any space they make, my team has been [there] to communicate ‘Hey, here’s the policy,” Love said. 

Kotlikoff acknowledged that many injustices, including the Vietnam War, have been addressed in the past through civil disobedience, where students understood the repercussions for breaking the law and did so anyway because they believed in the importance of their actions. He emphasized the University’s goal to ensure students can freely express themselves. 

“What we want to get to, is a point where people can protest legally [and] appropriately, without infringing on anyone’s rights, understanding what that means and actually in no way suppressing that activity,” Kotlikoff said.