Guest Columnist

It's time to be a college, Cornell

Cornell College campus (Gazette Archives)
Cornell College campus (Gazette Archives)

Cornell College has a problem with free speech.

Recently, its student senate rejected a student-led effort to start a chapter of Turning Point USA, a national organization founded by conservative activist Charlie Kirk that claims to promote “principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.”

I do not belong to Turning Point USA, I do not share its views, and I strongly disagree with its practice of maintaining a watchlist of “radical” professors. But none of that should matter. The student senate’s rejection of the group is antithetical to the principles that Cornell purports to stand for, and its behavior suggests that Cornell students should think twice before engaging in political discourse that falls outside the prevailing campus orthodoxy.

While Cornell is a private university and thus not bound by the First Amendment, it nonetheless pledges to protect student expression. The school’s statement of Mission, Values, and Educational Priorities says “we strongly endorse freedom of speech, as articulated in the First Amendment, as an inherent right of individuals to express themselves.”

The statement goes on to assert that “Expression and personal identity are inextricably intertwined,” and that “the value of free expression must be given even more rigorous affirmation in an intellectual community that prizes liberal education, academic freedom, and critical thinking.”

The student senate’s action toward Turning Point USA runs counter to these important commitments. Cornell’s promise of free expression does not limit protection to only noncontroversial speech, and it leaves no room for the administration, the faculty, or the student senate to dictate what students can or should believe. The U.S. Supreme Court observed more than 50 years ago that speech “may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest … or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.”

For decades, the court has unrelentingly held that the mere dissemination of ideas, no matter how controversial or offensive, cannot be restricted in the name of “decency” or “undifferentiated fear.” Nowhere is this approach more vital than on a college campus, where, as Cornell claims to affirm with rigor, the institution’s very purpose is to promote critical inquiry through the free exchange of ideas.

Perhaps most disappointing about the student senate’s reaction is its shortsightedness. Political power ebbs and flows. Today’s political majority quickly can become tomorrow’s minority. The same approach taken by the student senate was used by campus leaders in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s to try to suppress civil rights groups, anti-war groups and many other student groups on the left side of the political spectrum.


Indeed, throughout history, free speech has been the most important asset for the politically powerless and those seeking equality for people subject to hate and discrimination. To bring things close to home, I wonder whether the student senate would be just as comfortable handing Gov. Kim Reynolds or President Donald Trump the power to decide what groups are “safe,” or which groups should be allowed to speak?

I hope that the students of Cornell will change course and restore the school’s commitment to free expression. And for those who disagree with Turning Point USA’s views — or the views of any group — I say take them on. Counter their speech with yours. Show why they are misguided or why your arguments are better. Don’t shy away from intellectual challenge. Debate. Reason. Persuade.

In short, be a college.

• Joseph W. Yockey teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law. The views expressed here are his own.

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