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Cornell professor backs unruly protests: ‘Democracy needs disruption’

But what if you have the ‘wrong’ politics?

In response to last week’s “die in” at Cornell’s Mann Library — during which approximately 100 student activists laid on the library floor and chanted “Cornell is complicit in genocide” (at least until the police were called in) — a professor at the school says “there is no free expression without disruptive expression.”

Government Professor Alexander Livingston asks why was Cornell’s reaction to the library incident different from its responses to previous student demonstrations? That is, those against Starbucks and the university’s “morally odious” investments in fossil fuel resources, as well that over the lack of black faculty and an anti-racism institute.

Livingston (pictured) says Cornell’s nascent “Interim Expressive Activity Policy,” which states protests must “avoid disrupting classrooms, libraries, auditoriums, laboratories, living units, administrative offices and special event venues,” should concern the campus community.

“In a statement released after the protest on Thursday, the Office for University Relations illustrates the strange doublespeak required of the administration’s new policy of repressing speech in the name of speech,” Livingston writes. “In one single sentence, it affirms students’ right to protest while forbidding all conduct that poses a disruption to campus life.”

But … “democracy needs disruption,” he says. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. caused disruptions during the Civil Rights Movement (which even liberals saw “as an affront to rights of others” while sympathizing with him and his protesters), as did gay rights activists during the AIDS scare in response to the “government’s [alleged] callous denial” of the crisis.

Of course, in King’s case black Americans were being denied the same basic rights enjoyed by other citizens solely because of their skin color. His disruptions, such that they were, consisted of things like sitting at (then-legally) segregated lunch counters and restaurants … waiting to be served like anyone else.

MORE: ‘Zionists must die,’ Cornell student and former White House intern says

However, the complaints of the late-80s/early 90s AIDS activists are more akin not to King’s, but those of the climate change and anti-Israel protesters on campuses today. They naively thought/think that pissing people off by, say, blocking traffic during the morning work commute, or lying down and screaming about a faux genocide in a library for which students have paid over $63,000 to use, will bring you around to their way of thinking.

What’s more, if “democracy needs disruption,” what about upset parents voicing their concerns at school board meetings? Or pro-life activists praying outside an abortion clinic? In these cases, the feds will consider a “domestic terrorist” label for you and put you in the hoosegow for a decade, respectively.

And what of the myriad non-violent protesters who showed up at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 … and those who weren’t at the building but merely in the general DC area? We know what happened to many of them.

I asked Livingston about these J6 “democracy disruptors” as it were, specifically emphasizing “non-violent.” His response:

“This is a bad faith comparison and you know it. Saying that governments have an obligation to tolerate a certain degree of disruption is not to say such toleration is without limit. Murdering police and trying to overturn a democratic election is surely an entirely different scenario than lying peacefully on a library floor for ten minutes” (emphasis added).

Ah. So disrupting democracy every now and then is a good idea … unless one holds the “incorrect” views and politics, that is.

MORE: Cornell-related summer program’s anti-Israel rhetoric draws scrutiny

IMAGE: Cornell U.

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 20 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.