The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell

Dear Cornell community:

"Freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom."

-Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States

Free expression is the bedrock of democracy, just as academic freedom is the bedrock of higher education. These twin freedoms are at the heart of our core values, and have always been fundamental to Cornell’s excellence and its identity.

Today, as we witness assaults on free expression and academic freedom from both ends of the political spectrum, it is vitally important that we, as a community of scholars, engage deeply with these values and the issues that can emerge in upholding them. To this end, I’m glad to announce our university-wide theme for the 2023–2024 academic year, “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell.”

Together we will explore the significance, history, and challenges of free expression and academic freedom through a series of events and experiences designed to build knowledge and foster discussion. The initiative will provide opportunities for the development of skills essential for effective participation in democracy: from active listening and leading controversial discussions – as well as managing one’s responses to controversial interactions – to leading effective advocacy.  It will also include opportunities to confront the tensions that can arise between our core values of free and open inquiry and expression, and being a community of belonging.

Throughout the academic year, students, faculty, and staff will have the chance to come together and engage with these topics through scholarly and creative events and activities that may include reading groups on free expression; debates among invited speakers who model civil discourse; and exhibitions and performances that may span art, film, and fashion.

The theme year will be anchored by a series of cornerstone events on the Ithaca campus, while academic units and departments and student organizations across Cornell, including on the Weill Cornell Medicine and Cornell Tech campuses, will organize additional events and discussions.

We have set up a suggestion box email at If you would like to share an idea for a project or event related to the theme, please send it to that address along with the name of your school, college, or unit.

I hope you will join me in engaging with these important issues, and look forward to a year of meaningful exploration of what is, truly, “the indispensable condition” of both our institution and our nation.

Martha E. Pollack

Steering committee members:

  • Kavita Bala, dean of the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science
  • Colleen Barry, dean of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy
  • Kelly E. Cunningham, chief of staff and special counsel to the president
  • Eve De Rosa, the Mibs Martin Follett Professor in Human Ecology and dean of faculty
  • Rachel Dunifon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology
  • Gautam Hans, associate clinical professor of law and associate director of the First Amendment Clinic at Cornell Law School
  • Joel M. Malina, vice president for university relations