Not many people can say that they wish they were out of a job. At Will Creeley’s office, they’re “not hurting for cases”, and that’s a major problem.
The director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), Mr. Creeley spoke Tuesday evening as a guest of the Cornell College Republicans on the subject of freedom of speech and the difficulties that students experience nationwide while exercising their first amendment rights.
An attorney in free speech and constitutional law, Creeley works with a team of lawyers across the country, documenting civic abuse on campus and refocusing priority towards the individual, in an effort to change the “power equilibrium,” so that students can confidently retain their voice on campus. “The thing about free speech,” Creeley told the crowd in Goldwin Smith, “is that sooner or later, everyone’s free speech comes into question.” While FIRE has been labeled in the past as a ‘conservative’ organization, Creeley clarified this issue, saying that FIRE has received this pseudo-affiliation due to the fact that most of their cases recently have been in defense of conservatives who have been silenced.
Historical cases in this matter, however, were often in defense of liberal protestations and incidents. Creeley discussed a plethora of different free speech issues on college campuses, beginning with Sweezy v. New Hampshire, which concluded that the essentiality of freedom in public universities is almost self-evident. He elaborated, saying that the right to think, speech, challenge, parody, and protest as a college student is “powerful and beautiful,” and ”necessary for the preservation of the core of the United States.” Covering infamous free speech censorship nationwide, Creeley spoke about SFSU, Liberty University, Temple, Georgia Tech, IUPUI, University of Delaware, and of course, our very own Cornell.
The problem with Cornell’s system, Creeley pointed out, is the ambiguity surrounding harassment rules as outlined in Cornell’s laws. FIRE has highlighted Cornell as a “Red Light” school for policies that “clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.” The purpose of FIRE, Creeley said, is to identify ‘speech codes’ in policy – essentially any policy that could potentially regulate free speech. After exposing such codes, FIRE demands that the institution make it very clear what their policy is regarding assembly, free speech, and protestation. In Cornell’s case, the school “promises with one hand, and takes away with the other.” While the complete reasoning for Cornell’s ‘Red Light’ label can be found here, Creeley highlighted specific regulations in Cornell’s policy that do not hold up to legal standards: making biased-motivated jokes or statements, making demeaning or degrading expressions, and the required responsible use of electronic communication. The vague and over-broad nature of such policies is extremely dangerous to the student, as enforcement usually ends up relying solely on the whim of administrators. This ‘selective enforcement’ becomes a slippery slope, as there is no definitive policy, and therefore provides no shelter for protected speech.
Creeley provided the example of a student who repeats a joke heard on the popular Daily Show with Jon Stewart - because so much television comedy relies on biased-related subjects, it is very likely that any Cornellian who enjoys the Daily Show will find themselves repeating a funny joke heard on the show. If overheard, according to the overly-broad school policy, this student could be subject to a harassment charge; a charge that is not easily explained later on in life.
Creeley explained to the crowd that in the market of ideas, bad ideas naturally sink to the bottom – for this reason, bad speech should not be outlawed, but rather battled with even more speech. ”If you go through four years of college without being offended,” Creeley stated, “then you should get your money back.” But for the most easily offended, sensitive person on Cornell’s campus, they currently have the right to press a harassment charge. Sounds like Review writers may have a decent case against Pat Noonan from the Dickson ousting of ’09.