Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

A Conversation on Hate Speech and University Codes

By Jenna ZitomerPublished January 1, 2017

Hate Speech in the Trump Era
Following each of the myriad outcries of discriminatory and oppressive behaviors targeted at minority social identities in the America, we are faced with incidents on university campuses, specifically at Cornell, that appear a microcosm of the same issues that plague our country. Police have killed 964 people in the United States this year alone, with black Americans, roughly 242 people, comprising 25% of this population despite only making up 13% of the population of the United States. Just when it feels as though police brutality is everywhere, Cornell students wake up to an incident of a black student having been beaten to the point where hospitalization was necessary. He was called racial slurs, by white fraternity men I may add, that date back to the American slave trade. In August, President Trump exclaimed that he would proceed with building a wall between the Mexican and American borders even "if we have to close down our government." Less than a month after and immediately following the Trump administration's decision to halt DACA, a member of Zeta Psi fraternity chanted "Build a Wall" near the Latino Living Center at Cornell University. At the tail end of this summer, Americans went to sleep having heard that a mob of white supremacist, neo-nazis organized in mass to rally to "Unite the Right" in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chants claiming that Jews will not replace "white culture" and white supremacy rattled the streets, following an  attack by a white supremacist resulting in the death of 1 counter-protester and the injury of 35 other civilians. Just one week ago, Cornell University students approached campus early in the morning for classes only to be taken aback by flyers posted around campus encouraging students to "Say No To Jewish Lies" and to "Join the White Gang", displaying photos of a snake wrapped around a globe and an image that bears a striking resemblance to a swastika, which holds additional meanings as well.
    There is hate amidst our campus, hate that is reflected by the state of our country, by the actions of certain law enforcement agencies, by the choices of the current administration, and by attacks from civilian to civilian. This hate is protected. In the United States, our constitution places us in a precarious position in which we must balance the pillars of freedom and equality, both promised ideals in our nation's doctrine, which seem to be at constant conflict with each other. Freedom of speech is perhaps the most complicated topic of them all. On a university campus in the Ivy League, students are encouraged to voice their opinions. The campus is rife with political dispute and differing opinions on topics ranging from economics to health-care to the value of religion. Though at what point does speech begin to threaten the safety and security of a nation's citizens? At what point does a university have a social and civic responsibility to put its foot down and say enough is enough when its students no longer feel welcome on its campus? Cornell prides itself on the motto on which the institution was founded: "any person, any study". While these words are sanguine in theory, they are not acted upon. If you are not a white Christian male, you have likely been victim to a physical or verbal attack at Cornell. If you are not a white Christian male, you have a target on your back. Should you have multiple disadvantaged social identities, should you be queer, and black, and female, and Muslim, universities like Cornell make it clear that you are not as welcome here as a student who is heterosexual, white, Christian, and male. Perhaps the administration does not say it outright but the actions detailed above, all occurring in the current semester, and the university's lack of appropriate respective responses to them makes a statement. It tells students who are members of structurally disadvantaged groups that Cornell is only slightly bothered by recent events on campus, but not enough to change their campus code of conduct.
    Cornell University's code of conduct explicitly states that it values the health, safety, and welfare of its students. However, only in highly specific scenarios does the university's code of conduct prohibit speech that could be deemed as discriminatory towards racial, religious, and gender identities, as well as sexual orientations. This is only with regards to having speakers on campus and is specific to when students or speakers ask questions that threaten these structurally disadvantaged social identities. Since the incident with the black student involved physical violence, it is punishable by university campus code. However, because the other two incidents were purely instances of "expression", as our code of conduct would describe them, they cannot be used to persecute students to nearly any degree. Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi recognized verbal attacks like the one on the Latino Living Center as a "right of open expression", despite openly claiming that he acknowledges the strong pattern of marginalization of multiple communities on Cornell's campus. The United States Supreme Court upholds that hate speech on campuses are punishable only if they are considered "fighting words", or terminology that inspires or provokes immediate violent action. While this is logical in theory, who is to say that speech calling to build a wall around Latinx students or that posters inviting students to not believe in "Jewish lies" won't invoke violence? Who is to say that these hateful words and demonstrations won't inspire students to assault someone, to put someone in physical danger, or to put a whole community in physical danger? Why must physical violence be the place where we draw the line? Surely if Cornell claims to care so strongly for its students' welfare, they would value their mental health and sense of safety to the same degree that they value their physical bodies.
While I believe in the importance of the constitution and of maintaining a certain level of standards for all Americans in this great nation, there comes a point where we as a socially evolving people have the responsibility to look back at the conditions under which our constitution was written and think of ways in which we can reform such a doctrine. Our constitution was signed in 1787 by a group of white men who were complicit in perpetrating the removal of a nation from the hands of those who rightfully had it first. Our doctrines call for liberty and justice for all, an ideal we know quite well is not upheld today for those who are not of the same racial, gender, religious, and sexual orientation status of those who originally signed that statement only a few hundreds of years ago. It is time that we recognize that hate speech that specifically targets and discriminates against marginalized communities should be neither welcome nor allowed on a University campus. When so many people form the opinions that they carry with them for the rest of their lives at college, our country cannot afford for universities to be breeding grounds for hate. While free speech is foremost, there should be actions universities are allowed to take when it directly threatens the physical and mental safety and wellbeing of the students it targets.