Cornell U to Impose 'Speech Tariffs' on 'Controversial' Speakers?

P. Gardner Goldsmith | July 26, 2018
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Students of economics and US History learn that what are called tariffs are really taxes placed on imported goods. They’re used by politicians on behalf of themselves and special interests to syphon money off of market transactions and to help less competitive domestic sellers by increasing the prices of their competition. So when one hears that Cornell University is going to impose what one author calls a “Speech Tariff” on “controversial” speakers invited to campus, that’s an interesting take on something one normally wouldn’t connect to a “tariff”.

But, as Christian Montoya reports for The College Fix, it has the potential to become just that. Writes Montoya:

In spite of the new ‘fixed price’ system, campus police will ultimately decide how much to charge students, based in part on the expected reaction to the speech at their events, according to a spring letter to ‘Student Leaders & Advisors’ from two Cornell officials.

And, with cozy, overly-ebullient, “rah-rah” college enthusiasm, the Senior Associate Dean for Students and the Director of Campus Activities at Cornell offer:

We have established new protocols that promote both speech and safety. These protocols provide opportunities both for the speech of a speaker and the speech of protesters to that speaker. In a nutshell, in the space with the speaker, we have more robust procedures to ensure the speaker may be heard. Additionally, there will be designated protest spaces to allow the voices of protesters to be heard. More speech; more safety. Mic drop.


The problem is that the “fixed price” system is fixed by the police, and is not fixed across the board. The university will cover the first $1,000 of college police charges, but expenses over that amount must be paid by the organization sponsoring the speaker.

And while this might seem logical at first – offering students a realistic view of the fact that there is a different level of controversy between someone speaking on, say, crochet, and someone speaking about his love for the Soviet Gulag -- the worry is that this is code for a new school-run “tariff” system. Conservative students fear that higher fees will be placed on organizations that invite conservative or “non-leftist” speakers, not because of a potential threat, but to act as a disincentive, a financial hurdle so high, they will not be able to hold their events.

As Cornell student Ben Lee writes for The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

If Cornell’s actual policy looks like its plans, Cornell risks taxing speech and imposing a heckler’s veto. By requiring student groups to pay for security in this manner, the university places a financial burden on the ability of students to invite certain speakers to campus.

Sadly, this is a strong possibility, and the university is, in a way, stuck – all because of previous events around the US in which hardcore leftists such as members of Antifa have pepper-sprayed, hit, spat upon, and shouted down not only people trying to see conservative or libertarian speakers on campus, but the speakers themselves. Often, Antifa or left-leaning students will use the old postmodernist saw of labeling a group or speaker as “fascist”, even if the speaker is not. Their tactics have led to damaged property, intimidation, and assaults, all of which police have to try to quell or to which police must respond with arrests.

There appears to be no school policy that can completely solve the problem save for campus police arresting those involved with violence, and charging them for the disruptions and security costs. Cornell is a private university, and, as such, can make its own rules regarding speech on campus, but, based on previous behavior, conservatives and libertarians might be very justified to be worried.

Antifa and social justice warriors who employ identity politics and violence now have a powerful weapon at Cornell: costs. Yes, this could be like a tariff against non-leftist speech.

And if university functionaries are unwilling to hold the violent students accountable for those costs, the suppressors of free speech who operate under their black-masks and guises of “defending the defenseless” will continue to get away with it, with even more ease.

And those who support individualism and conversation will be shouted down, intimidated, and threatened with violence.