Everyone knows that free speech is code for hate speech. The FIRE rankings for free speech should be looked at as the negative rankings for fighting hate speech. That is, Michigan Technical University (#1) is the worst university for fighting hate speech and Harvard University (#248) is the best university for fighting hate speech. Seen in this enlightened way, it is virtuous that Cornell dropped in this year’s ratings. Still that does not remove the sting that Harvard (#248) beat us again. FIRE even created a new category “Abysmal” to describe free speech at Harvard. This literally means that Harvard got a “Superb” rating when it comes to fighting hate speech. Cornell, which was ranked 212 out of 248, got a “Below Average” rating from FIRE for free speech, which means we only have an “Above Average” rating for fighting hate speech. Let’s face it, “Above Average” pales next to “Superb”.
I want to remind President Pollack and the members of the Board of Trustees what Anthony Leaker wrote about the real nature and dangers of free speech in his book Against Free Speech:
Free speech arguments function to amplify and normalise racist, sexist, or lslamophobic voices, and often serve to place “the bigot on the moral high ground”. More importantly, they work to prevent challenges to entrenched structural, institutional and normalised racism, sexism or Islamophobia by denying or disavowing structural or power imbalances. Indeed, the free speech defence often inverts actual power relations-the people making racist claims assert their victimhood when called out for their racism, decry censorship while denying their critics a voice, and refuse to consider how the conditions or terms of communication are not only biased but structured in their favour. They use the universalising rhetoric of liberalism-freedom, openness, truth-and claim to be defending universal values-what’s right and true and good-to obscure their own advantage.
President Pollack and the Board of Trustees must take immediate actions to support and strengthen our community by mandating that everyone in the Cornell community read Against Free Speech by Anthony Leaker. This should be as effective as the Community Book Read we had in the Summer of 2020 when Saint Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to be an Antiracist became the foundational text for Cornell University.
As a campus community, we have a collective responsibility to engage in difficult but critical conversations – to listen genuinely to, and learn from, one another. To help bring focus to these conversations, I invite all of you to participate in a Community Book Read of “How to Be an Antiracist” by National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi. We will soon provide all students, faculty, and staff with information about how to access an electronic copy of the book, along with a schedule of virtual discussions which will take place over the summer. I hope you will choose to read the book and to join in the conversation.
With this strategy, next year Cornell will attain the coveted description of “Abysmal” from FIRE.