In April 1969, armed black students seized Cornell’s student union and threatened to shoot anyone who did not accede to their demands. In response, state police raided the building, arrested the criminals, and restored law and order on campus. Oh wait, none of that happened. Cornell’s pusillanimous administrators unconditionally surrendered to the thugs, pledged more affirmative action, and built a segregated dormitory. In the spring of 1969, Cornell died. And the rot of our decomposing institution still fills the air today, as evidenced by the Cornell NAACP’s recent push to censor the campus’ conservative newspapers — The Cornell American and The Cornell Review.
The armed takeover of Willard Straight Hall (WSH) was the defining moment in Cornell’s history. When University President James Perkins chose to appease criminal behavior in 1969, true academic freedom ceased to exist on this campus. The events of 1969 precipitated numerous riotous acts of hooliganism during the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. During the last decade alone, we saw the 1993 Day Hall takeover, the 1997 Cornell Review burning, and the 1998 Barton Hall invasion.
Over the last 35 years, Cornell has consistently chosen to endorse leftist militancy over fulfilling its chief obligation to students and faculty — facilitating a vigorous free marketplace of ideas. Whenever left-wing student radicals encounter conservative ideas, their instinct is always to riot and censor. Fearing their side will lose if forced to participate in an open debate, they stage wild protests and seek to shut down opposing viewpoints. And why not? Cornell gave them carte blanche in 1969.
Last week, the NAACP circulated petitions around campus that called for the revocation of student funding from The Cornell American and The Cornell Review. They demanded that the staffs of each newspaper be hauled before the judicial administrator to be charged with “bias-related” infractions and called for financial audits.
The NAACP’s fascist tactics were prompted by the publication of two articles in the campus’ conservative newspapers. Sara Townsley grad published a piece in The Cornell Review about the Ithaca District Attorney’s decision to virtually ignore a racially motivated assault against a white student after a Ludacris concert. Michael Hint, Class of 2006, published an article in The Cornell American denouncing racial preferences in admissions to college. According to the NAACP, these articles constituted an “orchestrated attempt” at “hate” and must be banned.
The NAACP’s tactics have been vicious, by any standard. According to three eyewitnesses present at Thursday’s meeting of the NAACP, one member, referring to The Cornell American, said, “Let’s burn this b-tch down.” A freshman student, Juan Pablo Lopez, wrote an email to American editor-in-chief Ryan Horn grad that said, “your publication is a racist piece of sh-t. If you were smart, you'd say all that stupidity and hide who you are, cuz you're looking to get hurt.” A message sent over a minority activism listserv urged members to "call the writers and editors of these papers until they can no longer organizationally function, infiltrate and take over their meetings."
The NAACP’s new motto might well be, “Burn, infiltrate, and ban.”
A representative from the NAACP told me that defunding conservative newspapers was appropriate because its members do not want their student activity fee funding right-wing publications. But the purpose of the student activity tax is to allow students with different ideas and interests to partake in student activities. By singling out conservatives and banning them from receiving funding, the NAACP is explicitly discriminating against students on the basis of their politics.
There are many conservatives who do not want to fund the NAACP. There are many devout Christians who do not want to fund gay rights groups. What about these students? There are only two choices with regard to the student activity fee process — (1) privatize the whole system, allowing each student to contribute his money only to those activities he prefers, or (2) let every group apply for funding. If the student activity tax system remains compulsory, a censor-happy leftist majority cannot be permitted to discriminate against conservative newspapers by defunding them or subjecting them to politically motivated financial audits.
There can be no compromise on the issue of free speech. Any attempt to squelch the views of conservatives via unilateral defunding or through “hate speech” charges will be vigorously opposed, with legal action if necessary. Just nine years ago, in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that denying conservative students access to funding constituted a First Amendment violation:
(The) University's denial of funding to Rosenberger, due to the content of his message, imposed a financial burden on his speech and amounted to viewpoint discrimination...no matter how scarce University publication funding may be, if it chooses to promote speech at all, it must promote all forms of it equally.
If Cornell’s judicial officers proceed with any action whatsoever against Review or American staffers, the University will effectively be enforcing a freedom-strangling speech code. Cornell needs to teach students that the answer to speech with which they disagree should not be censorship, but rather more speech. Political opponents of The Cornell American and The Cornell Review are free to start up their own newspapers. They are not free to shut down debate.
The NAACP wants to classify opposition to affirmative action as “hate speech.” If they have their way, students who oppose racial preferences will either have to remain silent or face judicial punishment. Leftists already have a virtual monopoly of thought on the faculty, in the administration, and on the editorial page of the daily student newspaper. Now, they want to abolish the campus’ alternative media.
Cornell is on the precipice of yet another major crisis. The question before Vice President Susan Murphy and President Jeffrey Lehman ’77 is this: Will your administration offer an unqualified defense of students’ free speech rights or will you side with radical militants, as President Perkins did in 1969? It is hard to be hopeful.
Mr. Lehman has stumbled repeatedly during his first year as president, exemplified most dramatically in his welcoming of loony racist Cynthia McKinney onto the faculty. The current First Amendment showdown will be another defining moment for his administration. He must reverse the course of Cornell’s sordid history and stand firm in supporting a free marketplace of ideas.