The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

A Statement on Signing

I am serving on Cornell’s Committee on Campus Expressive Activity. We have been charged with “making recommendations for the formulation of a Cornell policy that both protects free expression and the right to protest, while establishing content-neutral limits that ensure the ability of the university community to pursue its mission.” Our mission includes formulating a replacement for Cornell’s controversial Interim Expressive Activity Policy, making recommendations about how the university should respond to violations of the policy, and educating faculty, staff, and students about the policy and the values at stake.

I have resolved that while I am serving on the committee, I will not sign letters or other policy statements on these issues. This is a blanket abstention. It does not reflect any agreement or disagreement with the specifics of a statement within the scope of what the committee will consider.

This is not because I have no views on free speech, universities’ mission, protests, and student discipline. I do. Some of them are public because I have written about them at length; others are private because I have never shared them with anyone; most are somewhere in between. Some of these views are strongly held; others are so tentative they could shift in a light breeze.

Instead, I believe that a principled open-mindedness is one of the most important things I can bring to the committee. This has been a difficult year for Cornell, as for many other colleges and universities. Frustration is high, and trust is low.A good policy can help repair some of this damage. It should help students feel safe, respected, welcomed, and heard. It should help community members be able to trust the administration, and each other. Everyone should be able to feel that the policy was created and is being applied fairly, honestly, and justly. Whether or not we achieve that goal, we have to try.

I think that signing my name to something is a commitment. It means that I endorse what it says, and that I am prepared to defend those views in detail if challenged. If I sign a letter now, and then vote for a committee report that endorses something different, I think my co-signers would be entitled to ask me to explain why my thinking had changed. And if I sign a letter now, I think someone who disagrees with it would be entitled to ask whether I am as ready to listen to their views as I should be.

Other members of the committee may reach different conclusions about what and when to sign, and I respect their choices. My stance reflects my individual views on what signing a letter means, and about what I personally can bring to the committee. Others have different but entirely reasonable views.

I also have colleagues and students who have views on the issues the committee will discuss. They will share many of those views, in open letters, op-eds, and other fora. This is a good thing. They have things to say that the community, the administration, and the committee should hear. I don’t disapprove of their views by not signing; I don’t endorse those views, either. I’m just abstaining for now, because my most important job, while the committee’s work is ongoing, is to listen.