An Open Letter to the Campus Community

On November 19 2012, the Cornell branch of Students for Justice in Palestine (Cornell SJP) held a demonstration protesting against the then-ongoing Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. We–members of SJP–had started preparing the event a few days earlier, on November 15. On November 17, we received word that the Cornell branch of the American Israeli Political Action Committee (CIPAC) and Hillel were planning a counter-rally to take place at the same time. That rally was clearly in response to the SJP rally.

As our SJP rally began, the CIPAC group, according to Chief of Cornell University Police (CUP) Kathy Zoner, “asked [SJP] to move out,” citing their “rights to the space.” The on-site events manager, Gina Giambattista, accompanied by a uniformed Cornell University Police officer, repeatedly approached us and ordered us to leave. This was a demand we refused, in line with the policy of the Campus Code, which states, “there appears to be no need for a mandatory permit procedure” for political activity and political demonstration on campus. Soon, a CUP officer again approached our group; in the process, according to a Faculty Senate Report on the event, “[a] female graduate student associated with the SJP rally was knocked to the ground.” (In fact, a police officer threw her to the ground.) In addition, a member of our group was threatened with arrest, on the premise that he was not a student at Cornell. In reaction to those events, Cornell SJP left Ho Plaza and marched to Day Hall.

In the following months, two reports concerning the November 19 rally were put forth. One, the Mingle Report, was assembled by the University legal staff. This report did not include the words of a single student participant from Cornell SJP. The other report, by the Faculty Senate, emerged after the Senate overwhelmingly called for an independent investigation of the November 19 events on Ho Plaza.

The report by the Faculty Senate found that SJP’s actions were in full accordance with democratic respect for the right to free expression, including the respect of others’ rights. More specifically, the faculty senate report noted that “student leaders from both groups, the faculty involved, and event manager — stated that, while the event was loud and emotions ran high, there was never any threat of violence.” The report concluded that “[a]ctual physical scuffles only occurred when the CUP and event manager returned for a second time with the intent to remove, from Ho Plaza, the person mistakenly identified as “not affiliated with Cornell.” In other words, the only dangers linked to the event were those which were caused by the actions of the event manager, Gina Giambattista, and the CUP under the management of Kathy Zoner.

The Faculty Senate report issues a number of recommendations, including the following:

  • The right to ad hoc assembly for the purpose of free speech and expression, without the necessity of filing a UUP notification, should be preserved and protected. Groups should be allowed to assemble, march, and speak in the open areas of the campus, so long as they do not infringe upon the primary educational mission of the University and so long as they respect the right to free speech of competing groups (if any). In that sense, the wording of the Campus Code should be clarified to remove any ambiguity, including the use of amplified sound.

Cornell SJP considers that recommendation to be clear and unambiguous.

However, the Codes and Judicial Committee has so far willfully ignored the Faculty Senate’s recommendations. Drafted by Gina Giambattista, the proposed amendment to the Campus Code reads:

  • Outdoor picketing, marches, rallies, and other demonstrations are traditional and legitimate forms of self-expression and dissent on campus.  Such activities are allowed so long as they respect the policies of the space in question and do not disrupt other University functions, including, without limitation, regular and special curricular activities, extracurricular activities, academic processions and events, conduct of University business, and employment interviews.  The right to free expression here, as in other contexts, requires respect for the rights of others.
  • Outdoor picketing, marches, rallies, and other demonstrations of free speech generally pose no threat of long-lasting exclusive use of University grounds or property.  No university permit is required for such outdoor activities, provided they conform with applicable policies that are consistent with this Code, and they do not disrupt University functions.  The presence of a counter-protest does not itself constitute a disruption to a university function or authorized event.  Moreover, those who oppose a speaker may thus make their views known, so long as they do not thereby interfere with the speaker’s ability to be heard or the right of others to listen.

One significant revision of this section of the Code includes the phrase, “so long as they respect the policies of the space in question.” This phrase enacts precisely the opposite of what the Faculty Senate, in its report, asked the Codes and Judicial Committee to do with this revision: this phrase does not uphold the right to assembly and speech, but rather extends to the administration the power to restrict free speech and assembly, by the use of permits and other means. Moreover, this new phrase could allow a group with a permit to remove a group without a permit. In fact, a member of CIPAC confirmed to the Faculty investigators that this was indeed the intent of CIPAC in securing the UUP in November 2012 [Audio, 32:00].

Cornell SJP insists here that this revision contradicts the clear and unambiguous report prepared by three Cornell faculty members, Profs. Richard W. Allmendinger, William E. Fry, and Margaret Washington. This revision also represents a failure of the Codes and Judicial Committee to respect basic democratic procedures, as well as a broader dereliction of a commitment to the values of the University community. We deplore the resolution as it is currently written. We reject this back-door attempt to subvert student free expression and faculty governance. And we urge that the phrase, “so long as they respect the policies of the space in question,” be removed from any revision of the Campus Code.

If this current code becomes the operating code of the University, it will be used against all of us — students and faculty alike — who wish to express positions or politics that others wish silenced. We cannot allow this to pass.

We ask that all concerned:

(1) Write in using the public comment facility: https://assembly.cornell.edu/staffing/motions/277 *

(2) Attend the UA meeting on March 11, at 4:30 PM in 401 Physical Sciences.

We also note that this process has brought to light fundamental improprieties in the functioning of the Codes and Judicial Committee, not limited to the unacceptable role of both the administration and the CUP, which has a seat on the committee, in writing codes, or law, that they will later be called upon to enforce.

Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine

* (The comment forum can sometimes be tricky to access. To make a comment, go to this link: https://assembly.cornell.edu/staffing/motions/277  Log-in, then reload the same link: https://assembly.cornell.edu/staffing/motions/277)

Advertisements

2 responses to “An Open Letter to the Campus Community

  1. Pingback: Cornell Daily Sun·

  2. Pingback: PROTECT FREE SPEECH: VOTE NO ON RESOLUTION 9 | Students for Justice in Palestine·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s