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Visiting law professors debated free expression on college campuses.

May 6, 2024

‘Words Have Lost the Connection with Reality’: Law Professors Debate Merit of Ann Coulter ’84 Visits, Pro-Palestine Encampments

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The spring semester has seen students arrested and suspended at pro-Palestine demonstrations and a professor removed by police for disrupting a speaking event featuring conservative media personality Ann Coulter ’84.

Students and faculty have continuously condemned the Interim Expressive Activity Policy, as the University celebrated its academic year of free expression with guest speakers and ice cream contests.

Within this disconnect, Cornell community members have questioned the University’s role in facilitating free expression.

Visiting scholars contextualized and compared free speech in educational environments at a debate entitled “Are Universities Failing to Provide a Culture of Free Speech and Open Inquiry?” on Thursday, April 23 in Warren Hall. 

Drawing a crowd of about twenty attendees, the debate featured llya Shapiro, the director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute, and Mary Anne Franks, a professor in intellectual property, technology and civil rights at George Washington University. Shapiro argued that universities are overall succeeding at protecting free speech while Franks argued they are not. 

The event was hosted by conservative nonprofit The Steamboat Institute in partnership with the Cornell Political Union and Cornell Heterodox Academy — an organization that aims to increase the diversity of thought in academia. Amber Duke, editor at conservative magazine Spectator USA and author of The Snowflakes’ Revolt: How Woke Millennials Hijacked American Media, moderated the event. 

Prof. Randy Wayne, plant science, opened the debate by speaking about his perception of a shift in the purpose of institutions of higher education following social justice movements. He discussed how, in the past, the purpose of a university was the dissemination of truth. According to Wayne, that purpose has now changed to focus on political activism — a focus that promotes self-censorship and violent speech on campus. 

“Words have lost the connection with reality. Words have become disruptive and violent,” Wayne said. “And disruption and violence has become the newest version of free speech.”

Shapiro echoed Wayne’s viewpoint, saying higher education has seen a “shift from education to activism.”

He connected this shift to cancel culture, citing his experience of being shouted down during a debate at the University of California, San Francisco’s law school in 2022. At the time, Shapiro was on leave from Georgetown due to tweets criticizing President Joe Biden for his vow to nominate a Black woman and claiming that Biden’s criteria would result in a “lesser” nominee.

Shapiro and Franks also debated if the administration reacted responsibly to protesters throughout Coulter’s repeated visits to Cornell.

Coulter was shouted down during her first speaking event in November 2022, leading to the removal of at least eight protesters. University administration invited Coulter back to speak in mid-April of this year, which resulted in Prof. Monica Cornejo’s, communication, arrest.

Shapiro said that event protesters should see consequences for violating disorderly conduct policies, but questioned the University’s rationale behind reinviting Coulter to begin with. Franks raised a similar concern, emphasizing that certain speakers offer nothing — besides being controversial — to students. 

Franks also discussed the influence of donors and politicians over schools to contextualize universities’ response to protests. She specifically referred to administrations’ responses to recent pro-Palestine demonstrations, including student encampments at Cornell and across the nation.

“We have seen these kinds of donors, judges and really powerful individuals telling universities, ‘We’re going to take away our support if you don’t do as we say, if you don’t crack down on speech that we don’t like’,” Franks said. “[At] Columbia, [New York University and] other places, students are rising up anyway and saying they are going to criticize power.”

While Franks defended students’ rights to peaceful protest, Shapiro argued that the actions of pro-Palestine activists border on violence, calling these protesters “pro-Hamas.”

“What [pro-Palestine protesters] are doing is violating rules, they are harassing people, they are stalking, they are engaging in criminal behavior,” Shapiro said. “And Columbia is failing in clearing out the encampment — arresting, expelling, deporting those who are foreigners, as is their duty to ensure, under federal law, that the other students have an equal opportunity to receive their education.” 

Some Jewish students at Cornell have expressed concern about their safety among pro-Palestine protests, criticizing chants calling for an intifada and considering antisemitic incidents associated with encampments held at other colleges including Columbia University.

Over one hundred students at Columbia University were arrested and suspended for participating in the encampment demonstration. 

Shapiro emphasized his support of First Amendment rights, but said that these rights do not encompass hateful or violent speech, such as Patrick Dai ’24 posting antisemitic threats on Cornell’s Greekrank forum last semester.

“We have to understand that certain actions are not speech,” Shapiro said. “If you beat somebody up or vandalize property, you don’t get protection for having a political or expressive motive. Certain types of speech are not protected themselves, like death threats [and] incitement of violence.”

At the end of the debate, Franks circled the conversation back to this line between expression and violence, this time referring to violence in response to the practice of free speech. 

“No students should be put in harm’s way for having the courage to speak out against injustice,” Franks said. “The people who want to put them in harm’s way — those people are not on the side of free speech, and they are not on the right side of history.”