Student: What qualifies as “controversial” or “high risk” on this campus is limited solely to conservative viewpoints
It’s not popular to be politically conservative at Cornell University, where I teach at the law school.
A recent study by The Cornell Sun student newspaper documented that 97% of faculty donations at Cornell Univ. went to Democrats, while an analysis by The College Fix showed that eleven departments at Cornell have ZERO Republican professors.
While Cornell is nowhere near as political or radical as many other Ivy League schools, such as Columbia, at the student level there is an overwhelmingly liberal and far-left bent among those students who are politically active.
Prelude: The Santorum Disruption
Since the election of Donald Trump, left-wing campus political activism is on overdrive. Olivia Corn, President of the College Republicans, has been harassed and threatened:
The president of the Cornell University College Republicans was shoved to the ground and called a “racist bitch” the night after the election, and campus officials are currently investigating the incident.
“I was actually assaulted on campus for being a Republican,” Olivia Corn told The Tab. “I had someone throw me to the ground and say: ‘Fuck you, racist bitch, you support a racist party.”
Corn gave the same account to The Ithaca Voice.
“Out of nowhere I was on my phone and looking at my email and out of nowhere I felt two hands grab my shoulders and just sort of threw me to the ground, and they were yelling ‘Fuck you racist bitch, you support a racist party,’” Corn said.
In an email to me, Corn described what it’s like to be a conservative student on campus:
The atmosphere is horrible. Every time someone says something slightly conservative, they are shot down immediately. I do not have the ability to say my opinion in classes, and I still hear people scolding me for bringing Rick Santorum to campus.
Her comments echo dozens of comments I have heard from students over the nine years I’ve been at Cornell, including in my role as formal and informal advisor to conservative groups like The Cornell Review. Many, if not most, conservative and centrist students learn early on just to keep quiet, keep their heads down, and try to emerge unscathed.
The Rick Santorum appearance referenced by Corn was a speech by the former presidential candidate on November 30, 2016, sponsored by the Cornell Republicans, in which Santorum was heckled throughout his speech.
While Santorum handled it very well, the disruption nonetheless sent a signal that conservative appearances would be at risk.
Michael Johns Event: Pay Security Fee, Go Private, or Go Home
The Santorum disruption was not a one-off. A similar disruption just took place again on Cornell’s campus.
The speaker was Michael Johns, one of the early Tea Party organizers, a conservative activist and supporter of Donald Trump. Johns’ son is a Freshman at Cornell.
Johns was invited for an Oxford-style debate by the Cornell Political Union (CPU), a non-partisan student organization whose motto is “Politics don’t have to be personal.” Its prior list of speakers includes both outsiders and professors.
The Johns appearance, however, came under Cornell University Police Department (CUPD) scrutiny when there were threats of disruption on social media. The CPU was given the choice of cancelling the event, turning it private so that only CPU members could attend, or paying the university a security fee of up to $2,000. Because CPU could not afford the $2,000 fee, it decided to turn the event private.
The Cornell Sun reported, Following Security Concerns, Cornell Political Union Makes Controversial Event Private:
Contention has erupted across the Cornell campus over what many students are calling a “fascist” event occurring this evening.
Michael Johns is set to speak at an event hosted by Cornell Political Union — a bipartisan group that invites lecturers to speak on political topics — in a lecture, titled “Trumpism Can Make America Great Again.
The event, although originally intended to be public, was recently made private per advice from Cornell University Police Department and is now open only to Union members and selected invited guests. The location of the lecture has been kept private and undisclosed even to attendees until only hours before the event….
Troy LeCaire ’17, president of C.P.U., told The Sun that CUPD reached out to him Sunday night and told him that the event had been gathering a lot of attention on social media. Police raised issues over the security of the speaker and the people or protesters who might be present at the event.
LeCaire claimed that CUPD issued him an ultimatum.
“I was told the Union could either pay $2,000 in security fees to ensure the presence of CUPD officers at the event, cancel it altogether or make it private,” LeCaire said, adding that this was the reason for the change.
I confirmed these details directly with LeCaire, who clarified that the original CUPD security charge was to be $1,700 but possibly as much as $2,000 depending on how many officers were needed. LeCaire emailed:
Because of the nature of the threats made against the event, and the number of people we were expecting, CUPD would not allow the event to proceed as public unless we retained their security services. The officers with the CUPD were very nice and accommodating, in that they allowed a private event to move forward with a reduced security presence (although we will still likely have to pay). The issue here is that neither the university or the CUPD provides assistance to groups wishing to host controversial speakers, and the only speakers that will be “controversial” enough to require a police presence are conservative ones. Through this policy of inaction, the University and the CUPD make it difficult to maintain a political balance.
Event Closed and Moved, But Protesters Track It Down
The event took place, but only after it was turned private and the location moved to a secret location not announced publicly.Nonetheless, student protesters tracked down the location and protested outside, while demanding entry into the room.
I spoke with Johns about it, and he said the protesters were chanting, among other things, “Let us in, Let us in.” They were kept outside the room, but Johns said the chants were loud enough to make it hard for Johns to be heard. The chanting started a few minutes into his 20 minute speech and went on for the remainder. Johns believes that the event would have had hundreds in attendance had the threat of disruption not caused it to be closed to the public and moved.
A reporter from The Cornell Review (to which I am faculty advisor) described the chants as follows:
You can read the prepared text of Johns’ speech at his website, The Roar of the Forgotten Man and Woman. It reads in part:
Throughout the speech, protesters outside the door interrupted Johns by screaming inane chants demanding that the speech end. Such chants included “no safe space for white supremacy” and “no Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA,” but the one that stood out the most was the humorous yet threatening “open that door!”
On the drive up here tonight, I happened to see how this university describes itself on its Twitter feed. It’s a great description: “Teach tomorrow’s thought leaders to think otherwise and create knowledge with a public purpose.” Tonight I’m going to do exactly that: I’m going to try to get you to think a little differently—to see what over 60 million Americans saw when they voted for Trump, and we’ll do all of this with the spirit that we’ll use this knowledge to serve the higher public purpose of enhancing the greatness of our nation, which requires of each subsequent American generation that they defend and continually improve it for all Americans.
Incredibly, the student protesters who forced the event to be made private under direction of CUPD then complained that the event was private. The Cornell Sun reported on the protest, Students Protest Private Lecture, Calling It a ‘Safe Space for White Supremacy’:
Hours before the event, with its location still unknown, Johns said in a Twitter post, “‘The forgotten man and woman will be forgotten no longer,” adding, “I’ll explain tonight, 7:30pm.”
As Johns spoke to the political union about “ominous forces” penetrating U.S. borders, student protesters outside chanted “open that door,” at times drowning out the Tea Party leader as at least one Cornell Police officer stood at the building’s entrance. A Student Assembly representative and at least two other students stirred up controversy by recording several protesters and asking them for their names.
The lecture began with eight minutes of Johns speaking uninterrupted, after which the protesters’ chants could be heard from within Rockefeller Hall, prompting acknowledgement from the former speechwriter.
“The University’s mission to challenge conventional norms is not being fulfilled if certain people on campus can cause a change in location or can shut down debate,” Johns told the crowd.
Protesters said the private event — which ultimately had 75 participants in attendance — excluded dissenting voices and gave Johns a platform for “hate speech” and a “safe space for white supremacy.”
“The conservative Tea Party speaker and CPU ultimately decided to create a safe space … where Johns could have an echo-chamber of saying what he wants while knowing he wouldn’t be held accountable,” said Allison Lapehn ’17.
One student government member took video of the disruption, and has indicated that he intends to seek review of whether the student code was violated by the disruption, as quoted in the prior Sun link:
At several points, students not involved in the protest videotaped the protesters and demanded their names. Mitch McBride ’17, who is also the S.A. vice president of internal operations, recorded students with his cellphone and told them that protesting could result in judicial action by the University.
“As the chair of the University Assembly Codes and Judicial Committee, I believe it is my duty to assist in making sure all members of the community properly adhere to the Code of Conduct,” McBride said in an email after the event. “I took video from inside the event and outside the event, including the protestors. I believe this is the best manner to collect evidence so the Code of Conduct is properly enforced.”
LeCaire penned an Op-Ed about the threats and disruption, Why We Hosted Michael Johns:
On Tuesday evening, the Cornell Political Union hosted Michael Johns, Sr., a conservative political activist and Tea Party leader, to speak to the body about President Trump’s ideology and his perspectives on American populism. He spoke mostly to explain, not to defend, and attempted to offer his perspective and confer an understanding of this brand of politics….
When we first announced this event, it was met with a great deal of interest and excitement from the Cornell community. We predicted that this event would be by far our largest, and students of all political persuasions expressed great enthusiasm about the opportunity to participate in our open forum. Unfortunately, we were also met with what can only be referred to as vitriolic backlash, originating both on campus and in the greater Ithaca community.
The character of this backlash ranged from threats to disrupt the event to personal harassment of the speaker in public areas on campus. We were forced to respond to escalatory threats against our event when the Cornell University Police Department informed us that to keep the event open, we had to pay nearly $2,000 in security fees, otherwise, we would be forced to close or cancel the event. We did not have the resources to pay CUPD.
To be clear: we did not want to close the event to the public. We believe that open discourse and debate should be shared by as many different voices as possible, and we deeply value our commitment to those aims. It is unfortunate and ironic that those protesters who criticized our event’s closure were themselves responsible for it.
Security Fee is a Form of Heckler’s Veto For Conservatives
This scenario troubled me at multiple levels.
It demonstrated that the Santorum disruption was not a one-off event, and may signal the types of consistent attempts to stifle conservative speech that we have seen at other campuses. The shrill reaction to and name-calling directed at Santorum and Johns also reflects a liberal intolerance which has escalated post-election, and only is likely to get worse, including at Cornell.
Also, as LeCaire indicated in his op-ed quoted above, the closure of the event kept many interested students out of the event. Shouting down and harassing campus speakers is not a victimless crime, it deprives the speaker of an audience and an audience of a speaker. The entire campus suffers.
But what bothered me the most was the university’s demand for up to a $2,000 fee to provide security after the threats were discovered. This seemed to me to be uniquely dangerous to conservatives on campus since only conservatives are likely to be targeted in this manner.
Liberal, progressive and even communist speech is so pervasive on campus that no one bothers to protest it. To the contrary, anti-capitalist speech is embraced by many students and faculty as witnessed by a recent “People’s School” event on campus, in which many faculty members participated, the focus of which was teaching students how to “fight back against the current capitalist agenda.”
Rick Santorum and Michael Johns, by contrast, were protested and disrupted.
University Blames Student Group For Not Registering “Potentially Controversial” Event In Advance
I expressed my concerns in an email to the interim President of Cornell, Hunter Rawlings. After quoting the comments by LeCaire in The Cornell Sun about the security fee, I wrote:
As someone who openly expresses views that are unpopular on this campus, it concerns me greatly that the onus of security protection was put onto the organizers of the event through a security fee. This obviously has a very chilling effect on campus speech since it amounts to a heckler’s veto over public discourse through the imposition of security fees.
I may write about this, but before doing so would like confirmation or denial as to the account provided in The Sun, as well as a statement as to Cornell’s policy on security (including fees) where the unpopular content of a speaker’s viewpoint leads to threatened disruptions.
When I didn’t receive a response, the next morning I followed up with a reminder, noting also that “[s]ince this is a scenario which almost certainly will only suppress conservative speech on this campus, it is a matter of great importance to whether Cornell will be a welcoming place for conservatives.”
I didn’t hear back directly from the president, but did receive a response from the Vice President for University Relations (who had been copied on my emails), placing the blame on CPU for not registering the event earlier. Here is the full response (emphasis added):
President Rawlings asked me to reply on his behalf to thank you for your Wednesday email inquiring about the circumstances surrounding the Cornell Political Union’s Tuesday evening meeting featuring Michael Johns.
The university has an event planning process that all organizations are asked to follow. Details can be found here. All club officers are made aware of the Event Registration Process through the Contracted Independent Organization form which all student organizations are required to complete. In addition, the Event Registration Form has specific criteria that indicates whether an event should be registered – one of which is potentially controversial events. You can view that info here.
The university asks for three weeks’ notice, but is quite flexible, and we typically work with groups as soon as their event is registered. A key consideration for all potentially controversial events is security. As you can appreciate, the university has a significant interest in providing a safe and secure environment for both speakers and attendees.
In this particular instance, the Cornell Political Union only completed the event registration process on Monday at 12:30pm. Until that morning, when the organization connected with the Cornell University Police Department (CUPD) regarding the event, they were not even aware of the need to complete the form. At that time, the organization indicated that the event had been advertised widely via social media, that it was to be held in a venue that only had room for 49 people, and that the organization did not have financial resources to pay for staffing.
When the student organizers requested security support directly from CUPD, they were reminded of the event registration process and advised that the space wasn’t appropriate for this type of event, and that CUPD would need to staff the event given the nature of the event, and given that CUPD had heard that community members from both Cornell and Ithaca were already planning to attend and protest. Again, our concern and that of CUPD was for the safety of both the attendees and the speaker. The option that was presented to, and accepted by the organization was for them to invite the speaker to a closed meeting whereby members of the group could invite their guests and still hear the speaker.
CUPD funding covers routine, everyday police services and large university-run events. All planning time and effort is free of charge. If an organization participates in the event planning process with sufficient lead-time, costs for security are greatly reduced and can even be non-existent. When an organization – any organization — waits for the last minute to follow the process, as was the case in this instance, and security issues arise, the costs can quadruple and CUPD is unable to provide its services free of charge.
In the end, the Cornell Political Union event did take place, and two CUPD officers were in attendance and helped to provide an atmosphere whereby the speaker was allowed to present his views with minimal interruption.
Thank you again for reaching out.
Student: What qualifies as “controversial” or “high risk” on this campus is limited solely to conservative viewpoints
LeCaire, the person from CPU who organized the event, disputed this claim from the university. He wrote in an email to me (emphasis added):
The university requires that event registrations be submitted 3 weeks in advance. In the three semesters of this club’s existence, we have never before submitted an event registration form, because our events did not meet the “controversial/high risk” criteria outlined on the University’s event registration guidelines. In this case, the threat of disruptive protest emerged within 48 hours of the event itself, which made it impossible for us to follow proper registration protocol. It may be argued that we should have known better, that such a topic and speaker would attract unusual attention. Certainly we will take additional measures in the future to prepare for conservative speakers.
But I think this highlights the issue with the university’s policies. What qualifies as “controversial” or “high risk” on this campus is limited solely to conservative viewpoints. In the past, we’ve hosted an Obama administration official, democratic members of the New York state assembly, and even a former US Army Chief. None of these speakers required us to complete the onerous event registration process, or pay for additional security. The university is obligated by its mission of free inquiry and discussion, to take steps to ensure that no additional burdens, financial or administrative, are placed upon groups wishing to provide conservative perspectives.
Cornell Republicans President Olivia Corn confirmed to me that for the Santorum event a $5,000 security fee was charged even though the event was registered long in advance.
Johns sent me an email reflecting on what had happened, and expressing similar concerns to mine:
“Especially given that the university administration was aware days in advance of the extensive organized on and off-campus plans to disrupt my remarks, it’s outrageous that they did nothing to secure the event or to make it clear that the code of conduct, which prevents students from engaging in this sort of disruption, would be enforced. Had this been a university sporting event, or a class, or a commencement address, or a liberal speaker, or any other sort of campus activity, campus police would have stopped the disruption immediately and those engaged in it would be held appropriately accountable. Instead, the university shifted the financial burden for the event’s security to a student organization that they know does not have the means to cover such costs, did nothing to discourage or stop the disruption and has failed so far to hold those engaged in the disruption responsible for their violations of the code of conduct.”
“When a university routinely fails to secure events featuring conservative speakers and refuses to discipline those engaged in the disruption of conservative speakers, they know exactly what they are doing: They are sending the message that it’s entirely permissible, and even encouraged, to disrupt and even shut down conservative speech. That was exactly the goal of the leftist protesters that descended on my speech. These protesters seemed acutely aware that there would be no ramifications for their disruptive behavior, and so far they are correct about that.”
Conclusion: Time for a Change of Policy
I hope that Cornell will reconsider its position on charging for security where events are threatened based on the unpopularity of the viewpoint.
While the policy on its face is content neutral, the reality on campus is that those under threat of disruption on campus for unpopular political speech almost certainly will be right-of-center.DONATE
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