Isabelle Jung / Sun Graphics Editor

April 30, 2024

EDITORIAL | The Sun Supports Disruptive Protest

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Earlier this month, our student government held a historic referendum. The questions it asked of the student body had wide-ranging implications: Should Cornell University call for an immediate, lasting cease-fire, and should it divest from arms manufacturers directly involved in the bloodshed in Gaza? 

Undergraduates answered, with a supermajority of voters — and us, the Editorial Board of The Cornell Daily Sun —  saying “yes” on both counts. Now, pro-Palestine activists are camping out on the Arts Quad, demanding an answer from the administration. The University has already suspended four peaceful student organizers. And still not satisfied, President Martha Pollack is threatening further action against activists, including HR referrals for employee participants. 

Generations of Cornellians will look back at the administration’s clear intimidation of protesters with shame. As a fiercely independent student newspaper that has recorded the history of our Ithaca, New York campus for the past 143 years, we know that disruption of the status quo for important social causes is nothing new at Cornell. 

Fifty-five years ago this month, Black Cornellians took over Willard Straight Hall in response to a cross burning and an administration that had always turned a deaf ear to their voices. Their powerful display led to an explosion in Cornell’s Black enrollment, a curriculum in Africana Studies, need-blind admissions and the creation of a student government that finally gave all of us a say in University affairs. 

Years later, in 1985, students staged sit-ins and hunger strikes, constructing an encampment on the Arts Quad to reflect the appalling living conditions of a racially segregated South Africa. Their struggle ultimately resulted in the University selling swaths of its investments in Apartheid. 

In 1993, Latino students occupied Day Hall after an art installation was defiled by vandals with racist graffiti. The work of those courageous activists who resisted bigotry led to the introduction of a Latino Living Center and the expansion of Cornell’s Latino Studies Program. 

If Cornell has taught us anything, it’s that student protest not only works but that it’s central to learning. 

Pro-Palestine demonstrations at Cornell follow a long-running tradition of civil disobedience — a tradition the University has tried unsuccessfully to quash over decades. It’s only fitting that community organizers would use the student government, a body formed in response to the ’69 Straight Takeover, to pass that referendum. 

We as an Editorial Board came together and made the necessary decision to endorse it because we know that the devastation on both sides of the Gaza border must come to an end. In our writing, we’ve also condemned Orwellian policies issued by our administration to chill speech, particularly that of pro-Palestine activists. 

On college campuses, speaking out — a vital means of negotiating pain and personal conflict — cannot be maligned, dismissed or outlawed. It must be encouraged as a learning experience in itself, even if protests marginally impact day-to-day routine. Occasional disruption is, after all, a small price to pay for civic democracy. 

The very purpose of an education is to prepare students with the moral and intellectual courage to stand up when history demands them to do so. That requires universities to be places where civil rights are held sacred, especially when broader society calls those rights into question. Cornell’s recent track record has been particularly regrettable, ironically in an academic year it has themed around free expression.

At the same time that administrators have hawked free speech ice cream, T-shirts and bumper stickers, President Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff have publicly railed against disruptive protests; campus police have arrested demonstrators who occupied Day Hall; and at one point in the semester, even candlelight vigils were verboten.

The referendum and subsequent protests will be remembered not only as an outcry against the grievous injustice happening in Gaza but also as a refutation of the administration’s attitude that students shouldn’t have a place where decisions are made. 

We have seen how the University is not only failing and ignoring the calls of its students but actively stifling campus protests. The very principles of free expression taught in our lecture halls, studied in our readings and practiced throughout our college’s vibrant history of activism are being rejected. 

Cornell students today are simply doing what they’ve always done best: pushing back with nonviolence. President Pollack, if she has a shred of moral courage left, must immediately allow back the four students suspended in connection with the pro-Palestine encampment, though nothing she could do in the weeks running up to graduation will save this failure of a free expression year.

The Cornell Daily Sun’s Editorial Board is a collaborative team composed of the Editor in Chief, Associate Editor and Opinion Editor. The Editorial Board’s opinions are informed by expertise, research and debate to represent The Sun’s long-standing values. The Sun’s editorials are independent of its news coverage, other columnists and advertisers.

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Editor’s Note (4/30): This editorial has been corrected to note that the administration had not yet issued HR referrals to faculty and staff, but rather was preparing said referrals.