Update on Interim Expressive Activity Policy

Dear Cornell Community:

Over the past weeks, the University Assembly (UA) has been soliciting feedback from our community on the Interim Expressive Activity Policy. We are very appreciative of the thoughtful input received from faculty, staff, and students, and we thank the UA for its continued work on this important issue. We have been in contact with UA leadership and the other assemblies, and we write today to provide an update on the policy.

Some of the feedback describes the interim policy as a means of increasing restrictions on free expression and limiting non-disruptive protests. As noted at the outset of the policy itself, this is not the intent, and indeed much of the interim policy simply brings together pre-existing policies in one place. However, based on faculty, staff, and student feedback, the following clarifications and changes to the interim policy will be put in place immediately:

Prior Registration
The use of the word “expected” with regard to event registration is vague. This will be clarified to say that while the university strongly encourages prior registration of protest activities, registration is not required. By choosing to register, organizers enable the university to better support protest activity, address health and safety concerns, and reduce the potential for unintended conflict with other scheduled activities.

Use of Open Flame
The prohibition against carrying open flames without permission was not intended to prevent candlelight vigils. The policy will be modified to specify that candles may be used at vigils if smaller than 6”.

The wording around postering was confusing. It will be clarified to say explicitly that prior written permission is not required for posters, signs, flyers, and banners in designated locations. Posters, signs, flyers, and banners in non-designated spaces—regardless of content—may be removed by facility managers.

We have also heard requests to remove the requirement that the name of the sponsoring Cornell organization or unit or individual be included, but we are not modifying the policy in this regard at this time. This requirement is a best practice, consistent with the policies of many of our peers. It serves both to ensure that posters are placed only by members of our community and to enable discourse. As stated in Brown University’s policy: this information “provides a means for dialogue in the event that members of the . . . community desire to express their views, concerns, opposition, or support. Part of the responsibility that comes with displays is the willingness to dialogue with individuals who may have different perspectives.”

These changes are made to preserve Cornell’s long tradition of and deep commitment to free and open expression. Indeed, Cornell’s Free Expression theme year seeks to honor that tradition. For free expression to thrive on campus, however, the rights of all must be protected. The free expression of one person cannot trample on that of another, for example, by shouting them down; nor can it hinder the activities of others, for instance, by disrupting a class or students studying in a library. Thus, to protect the rights of all, institutions adopt what are called “time, place, and manner” policies, which are necessarily content-neutral, i.e., they apply to all speech regardless of the content.

Cornell has had time, place, and manner policies for many years, but they have not been as clear as they might be, were not applicable to all community members, and were contained within different policies. That is why work on a consolidated expressive activity policy began almost a year ago. In the fall, we heard from a number of community members—including those engaged in activism—that they hoped for greater clarification of these policies. That led to the release of the interim policy and the eliciting of feedback towards a final policy.

While the interim policy is an important step, there is more work to be done to develop a finalized policy. In particular, we need as a community to grapple even more deeply with the question of how we preserve free expression rights to the maximum extent possible while preventing disruption that interferes with teaching, learning, and other campus activity. For example, we have heard in the feedback to the interim policy that some community members would value clarity around the sanctions associated with disruptions. As another example, most of our peers require some form of registration for outdoor events, and we need a broader discussion of the consequences, both positive and negative, of such a requirement.

While it was important to clarify and consolidate existing expressive activity policy through an interim policy, we must now develop a finalized policy through a consultative process. To that end, we will convene a group of faculty, students, and staff members to refine and propose a finalized version of an expressive activity policy that achieves these goals. Their charge will be to engage the campus community, to review the policies of peer universities for insights, and to issue a report by the beginning of the fall semester. With the benefit of this committee’s work, we will advance a version through the policy review process and then present a final policy to the University Assembly in the fall.

Please note that the interim policy, with the revisions noted above, remains in effect; as does the existing Student Code of Conduct.

Finally, we must remind the community that threats and harassment are not protected by free expression rights and are never acceptable. We have been deeply distressed over the past couple of weeks to learn of several incidents in which community members have experienced harassment that appears to be motivated by bigotry, in one case targeting a group of Muslim students, and in another a Jewish student. These incidents are under investigation. All members of our community must stand firmly together against acts of bigotry and hatred and continue our work towards being a community of belonging.

Thank you again to all community members who have provided feedback on the interim policy to date. We have all benefitted from your engagement and your ideas.


Martha E. Pollack

Michael I. Kotlikoff