A little over seven years ago, the University of Chicago issued a report defending free speech on campus. Since then, over eighty institutions or faculty bodies have adopted the report and committed themselves to promote free expression. We write this letter to encourage Cornell to do the same.
In 1932, the University of Chicago faced a watershed moment in its university policy: what to do about a Communist. When a UChicago student organization invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s presidential candidate, to lecture on the prestigious campus, the school faced immense backlash. Between concerned citizens and angry politicians, the public condemned Foster’s visit, dismissing his views as “treasonous hate rhetoric.” Even then-governor of Illinois, Louis Lincoln Emmerson, expressed his disapproval of the university for permitting the lecture to continue. In response to the criticism, UChicago President Robert M. Hutchins released a public statement that defined a precedent for the school: “Our students should have the freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself … the cure for ideas we oppose lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.”
From their genesis, colleges and universities were designed to serve as hubs of knowledge, spaces to expand one’s perspective and mindset. Since then, colleges have evolved in a multitude of ways — there are now thousands of diverse, unique schools with their own distinct mission statements and practices.
Cornell controversies come as fast as they go, usually earning barely a peep from the administration. So consider us astonished to hear the University has, at last, opted to effectively ditch the burdensome event security fee. The move is a win for free expression on campus and a remarkable bout of responsiveness from leadership that too often shrugs off community input. After first hinting at the changes in February, Cornell will now begin covering security costs for most events up to $8,000. In a campus-wide email, Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi announced the changes, which also include transitioning away from OrgSync, Cornell’s clunky student organization management system.
President Trump last week signed an executive order that links federal research and education grants for colleges and universities to their unwavering commitment to “[promoting] free inquiry.” Translation: The long-standing progressive censorship game at colleges and universities is now over. Universities and colleges will immediately cease shutting down, impeding or permitting the disruption of conservative speakers, or now risk losing billions of federal research dollars that are generously given away each year to these institutions of higher learning. It is unfortunate that such an order has become a confrontational stance on America’s campuses, but academia has sadly reached that point. Young America’s Foundation, for instance, favorably settled a lawsuit over this precise issue with the University of California, Berkeley last December. UC Berkeley, facing a constitutional challenge to its speaking protocols, agreed to abolish its “high-profile speaker policy” and speaking fee schedule while implementing a policy that ensures that heckling protesters will no longer be permitted to shut down speakers on campus.
Last Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order stating that colleges and universities receiving federal research funding and education grants must uphold free speech or risk losing their funding.
Surely, Cornell’s Event Management Planning Team wants to get it right this time. After last semester’s fiery blowback, EMPT recently announced that a “new, innovative” event security fee system was forthcoming. The announcement — a passing reference tucked away deep in the umpteenth line of a campus-wide bulletin — revealed no new plan, nor did it evince any new understanding of why the event security fee is so loathed. We’ve got no doubt that EMPT has a wonderfully meticulous plan to charge student organizations for security, replete with venue size breakdowns and clever classification schemes for what constitutes a “controversy.” Better would be to scrap it all. The event security fee is in fundamental tension with the University’s commitment to free expression.
Imagine a bunch of chairs had been set up for a speaking engagement, and someone had tried to destroy as many of them as possible to decrease the number of people that could attend the engagement. (Assume too, for the sake of argument, that the number of chairs determine the possible audience size: the grass on which they are set up is wet and muddy, so people wouldn’t just be able to sit on the ground, and the speech will last for a tiring while, so standing is off the cards too.) For all intents and purposes, this appears to fall on the spectrum of silencing, albeit of a seemingly benign sort, and I suspect most of us would agree. When it therefore came to my attention that some students were last month taking as many free tickets as possible to Dick Cheney’s originally scheduled speaking engagement, I couldn’t help but be a little miffed. Such actions admittedly come from well-intentioned political activism. However, not only does it take advantage of the Cornell Republicans’ good will, but, more troublingly, it demonstrates the increasing political sectarianism within American society.