Dear Alumni and Friends:
At a time of deepening partisanship in American society, Cornell University is committing the 2023-24 school year to its core mission of engaging across difference, pursuing effective advocacy, and protecting the right to speak freely. At every strata of our community, from the furthest margins on the left and right to everywhere in between, we are all served by civil discourse, and at Cornell Law, we are proud to help light the way in the University’s ongoing search for truth.
Embedded in the Constitution, the right to free speech is one of our nation’s most cherished political values, and the First Amendment Law Clinic, now in its sixth year, is an embodiment of those ideals. As you will read in the cover story, it is a small but mighty law firm created for people who lack the resources to defend their interests, and under the direction of four faculty members, clinical students have worked closely with real-world clients, learning powerful lessons about writing briefs, filing claims, arguing appeals in state court, advocating on behalf of free speech, and setting precedent under state and federal law.
With speech increasingly under attack nationwide, the clinic represents some of the greatest good that we do. As lawyers in the best sense, and as an institution training the next generation of lawyers in the best sense, we have a special role in upholding and preserving the First Amendment. To launch its theme year, “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell,” the University called on the faculty member Gautam Hans, associate director of the First Amendment Clinic, who tapped Law School colleagues Michael Dorf, Karen Levy, and Nelson Tebbe to lead the opening discussion on the fundamentals of free speech.
On that September evening in Myron Taylor Hall, the University embarked on a year-long, transformative journey to explore the legal foundations of free speech, grapple with the challenges of applying those principles in our daily lives, and navigate the evolving landscape of communication in the digital age. The program served as a reminder to all of us, in the Landis Auditorium and online, that freedom of expression is not absolute; that it requires us to act in good faith and show a sense of respect for the community; and that the need for civility increases proportionally as our disagreements become sharper and more entrenched.
The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell,” a moderated conversation between Professor Jameel Jaffer of Columbia University and Professor Eugene Volokh of the University of California at Los Angeles. Myron Taylor Hall, Landis Auditorium.
In the words of Benjamin Cardozo, who served as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, freedom of expression is “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.” In the words of President Martha E. Pollack, who spoke that evening, “The ability to say what we think, ask questions, and listen to others is essential to democratic government, to our right to self-determination, and of course, to our academic enterprise.”
At Cornell Law, our academic enterprise continues to go very well. This year, four distinguished scholars have joined the Cornell Law faculty, bringing new strengths in criminal justice, international law, law and technology, and administrative law. Thanks to the generosity of alumni, the Law School is expanding its vision for endowed chairs, two leading First Amendment scholars came to Ithaca to inaugurate the University’s Milstein Symposium, and we continue to make steady progress on our campaign To Do the Greatest Good. Reunion 2023 was a rousing success, with three days of old and new friends sharing their lives and memories with one another.
As part of remembering, the issue also celebrates the legacy of two of our most beloved faculty members, Sherry Colb and Steve Shiffrin, who trained generations of lawyers to think critically about important issues and to speak out against injustice— with anger, humor, and insight—wherever it is found. Sherry and Steve had much to teach us about free expression, dedicating their lives to talking, listening, and engaging in some of the most challenging ideas of our time.
I think of the example they set, and as we embark on this theme year, committed to ensuring a culture of openness, resilience, and civil dialogue, I look forward to taking this journey together.
Jens David Ohlin
Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law