Elite University Promotes Free Speech Following Stanford And SFSU Controversies
Cornell University campus
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Cornell University selected free expression and academic freedom as central themes for the upcoming school year after multiple related controversies at other postsecondary institutions.

Free expression at elite schools has been increasingly threatened in recent years as faculties become increasingly Left-of-center, producing environments in which conservative academics and students report pressure to self-censor or even overt instances of censorship. In the past several weeks, Fifth Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan was verbally accosted by student protesters and a diversity administrator at Stanford University, while collegiate swimmer Riley Gaines was attacked by a mob of San Francisco State University students who opposed her stance on prohibiting men from competing in women’s sports.

Cornell announced in the wake of both incidents that students will be encouraged to engage in “civil discourse” about the importance of free expression through means such as community book readings, lectures and speaker events, and artistic exhibitions through the fall of 2023 and the spring of 2024.

“It is critical to our mission as a university to think deeply about freedom of expression and the challenges that result from assaults on it, which today come from both ends of the political spectrum,” Cornell University President Martha Pollack said in a statement. “Learning from difference, learning to engage with difference and learning to communicate across difference are key parts of a Cornell education. Free expression and academic freedom are the bedrock not just of the university, but of democracy.”

Cornell included “free and open inquiry and expression,” even when some consider certain ideas “wrong or offensive,” in a list of core values released in 2019. The school’s board of trustees approved a similar policy statement on free expression two years later.

Multiple incidents over the past several years, however, appear to have contradicted the school’s professed commitment to free expression. Members of the student government attempted to pass a resolution three years ago that would disarm the school’s police, then voted to remove members opposed to the resolution and narrowly enacted the policy. Students and alumni likewise organized to depose William Jacobson, a veteran professor at Cornell Law School, after he contended that the Black Lives Matter movement was based on a hoax and criticized the organization’s tactics.


The more recent incidents at Stanford and San Francisco State provoked mixed reactions from administrators at each school. The former institution issued multiple apologies and vowed to more carefully protect free expression after Fifth Circuit Judge James Ho and Eleventh Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch announced that they would no longer hire any clerks who chose to attend Stanford Law School in reaction to the response to Duncan. The latter institution, on the other hand, issued a statement claiming that demonstrators “peacefully” expressed their views, even though police were forced to barricade Gaines in a room for several hours as students debated on whether she should be allowed to freely leave campus.

“This incident, and other similar disruptions at schools nationwide, make clear that maintaining strong free expression policies is not enough, independently, to ensure expressive freedoms,” read a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression to San Francisco State administrators. “Universities must educate their students on their First Amendment rights and those of other students, faculty, and members of the campus community. To protect free speech and ensure their educational communities’ safety, universities must clarify that the use of force or mob rule to silence speech is not an exercise in free speech.”

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