Brown University Retreats From Free Speech

ray-kellyAs champion of New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy—one riddled with accusations of racial profiling and saddled with a recent federal court ruling against it—police commissioner Raymond Kelly could count on some tough questions from students when he stopped at Brown University last month to talk about proactive policing.

Forty minutes out of the one-hour event had been reserved for just that purpose. But students would have none of it. Instead, Kelly was welcomed by a hall of hecklers and angry protestors chanting, No justice, no peace! No racist police! “Asking tough questions is not enough!” shrieked one audience member. After 30 minutes of shouting, the event was canceled.

While new Brown president Christina Paxson publicly condemned the protest, the university held a closed-door meeting with hundreds of students that effectively amounted to a giant group therapy session: students spoke of the emotional turmoil the mere presence of such a noxious speaker had induced while professors were all too eager to play the role of the cooing therapist. One professor praised the protesters. Another apologized for inviting Kelly.

If all this sounds eerily familiar, it should. Nearly twelve years ago, Brown was roiled by another controversy over free speech and race relations. In the spring of 2001, the slavery reparations fad was sweeping campuses across the nation with little substantive debate, prompting conservative commentator and publisher David Horowitz to step in and offer a contrarian perspective—in the form of paid editorials in campus newspapers that outlined ten arguments against slavery reparations.

When the Brown Daily Herald had the gumption to publish it, leftist students recoiled in horror. An ad hoc Coalition of Concerned Brown Students immediately snapped into action, demanding its own form of reparations from the Herald: a donation of the ad profits to the Third World Center and free advertising space for them.

When those demands were denied, coalition members reacted by stealing the entire press run of the Herald. Of course, the censorship impulse is always totalistic: after emptying newsstands of papers, an angry mob stormed the editorial offices, attempting to break in and destroy the last remaining copies of the Herald—apparently campus police couldn’t be bothered to keep the peace. And the professors were no better: a week later, a faculty panel overwhelmingly denounced the Herald and defended student activists. Faced with a warning of physical violence, the College Republicans canceled a scheduled speech by Horowitz in April 2001.

Horowitz was finally allowed on campus two and a half years later, to talk about the threatened future of academic freedom at Brown. But no violence was threatened. Nor did any hecklers shout him down. By then, the university had a new corps of conservative students and a new president, Ruth Simmons, who was committed to intellectual diversity and free speech.

Horowitz was pleasantly surprised by his reception: were he to return to campus, he said he would not again call his talk “Academic Freedom: A Vanishing Ideal at Brown.” The sentiment was shared by this author and other classmates who had been freshmen in 2001. By the time we graduated, we believed that Brown’s newspaper-stealing days were behind it. And, for the better part of a decade—other than a lone pie-throwing incident at New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in 2008—the campus has been spared such flagrant assaults on freedom of speech.

But the Kelly incident last month has extinguished such hopes. Given the distance between the events—today’s freshmen were first graders in the spring of 2001—it’s hard to see the new assault on free speech as simply a continuation of student tradition. Rather, the Kelly affair suggests that Brown’s issues with free speech and intellectual diversity are deep-seated and institutional. This doesn’t excuse student misbehavior. But it does incriminate the professors who encourage them and the administrators who enable them.

Consider that two senior administrators were present at the Kelly lecture. They attempted to tame the mob scene, according to the Herald. But one can’t help but wonder: when diplomacy failed, why weren’t campus police called in to haul out recalcitrant students? Such action isn’t unprecedented: in 2009, a perennial local political candidate, Chris Young, was removed from an event after yelling at then-Congressman Patrick Kennedy over abortion. Young was not a student and has no apparent ties to the Brown community—but does that mean students get a free pass on disorderly conduct? Is a Brown admissions letter a get-out-of-jail free card?

Again, in all fairness, it must be noted that Paxson publicly denounced the protests and reaffirmed the university’s commitment to academic freedom. Paxson wrote in an Oct. 29 community letter:

“This is a sad day for the Brown community. … our University is—above all else—about the free exchange of ideas. Nothing is more antithetical to that value than preventing someone from speaking and other members of the community from hearing that speech and challenging it vigorously in a robust yet civil manner.”

But such words ring hollow. At an Oct. 30 campus forum convened to deal with the controversy, the head of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions that hosted Kelly, Marion Orr, apologized to students for inviting him. Orr reportedly asked students to “submit a list of speakers whom they would not approve of coming to campus.” When that comment was printed in the Herald—at an event supposedly closed to outside media—Orr immediately backpedaled, writing in an e-mail to editors that he “meant to point out that a list of speakers like this should not exist and to provoke thought about such a list’s implications.” (The Herald ran his clarification as a correction, but did not redact its original report.)

Protests that prevent speakers from being heard—or block access to an event—are violations of the Code of Student Conduct. But, instead of referring the matter directly to the Student Conduct Board, it is being deferred to a special committee of faculty and students, Paxson announced in another community-wide e-mail on Nov. 6. That committee will conduct a two-phase investigation, first looking for problems in the planning and implementation of the event. Only then will Brown even consider enforcing its conduct code.

The committee also “will address the broader issues of campus climate, free expression, and dialogue across difference that have been the context for much of the discussion and activity of the last week. Specifically, the Committee will make recommendations regarding how the University community can maintain an inclusive environment while upholding our deep commitment to the free exchange of ideas,” Paxson wrote. That Brown is now confronting such issues more than a decade after what was arguably the most egregious attack on that principle in its history suggests a lack of urgency bordering on negligence.

Paxson’s letter notably danced the same two-step between defending academic principles and coddling student radicals on display during the reparations ad controversy: “For many members of our community, the topic of the lecture was a reminder of the visceral, emotional reality of their daily lives and the lives of others who have been subjected to racism and inequitable treatment,” she wrote.

Such words give the university an out—a way to condemn student actions without having to punish perpetrators. Strikingly, Paxson’s letter echoes students like senior Jenny Li, who described the lecture as an emotional “trigger” for those who had experienced racial profiling. Such language is commonly used in the context of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Presumably, protesters had been victims of racism so traumatic that it ranks with rape, physical abuse, and other experiences—firefighters running into burning buildings, soldiers on the battlefield—that usually lead to PTSD.

One wonders: if the students were merely exhibiting the signs of some kind of group PTSD flashback, how could the Student Conduct Board ever hold them responsible for their actions? The board certainly has precedent on its side: none of those involved in the theft of the Herald were ever disciplined or punished. Nor did the university ever investigate, or even take seriously, warnings about campus violence that were aired before Horowitz’s campus appearance in 2001. What students apparently need is therapy in the safe spaces of a campus closed to dangerous ideas and the ghosts of racism past—and that is exactly what they are getting.

Coincidentally, all this came on the heels of a local Catholic college’s decision to disinvite John Corvino, a pro-gay speaker, and reschedule his appearance so his views could be aired in a debate format. Progressives who had wasted no time in condemning the school, Providence College, didn’t skip a beat one month later in rushing to the defense of the Brown protesters. When this brazen hypocrisy was pointed out by Travis Rowley, a local columnist (and fellow classmate), one of the accused, Steve Alquist, insisted on the differences between the two cases:

The difference between the Ray Kelly cancellation and the Providence College cancellation could not be more pronounced. At Providence College, the John Corvino event was canceled by the school’s provost, against the wishes of the majority of students and virtually the entirety of the faculty. …

Rowley sees no difference between the free speech of people organizing for a cause, and the authoritarian cancellation of speech one person in power deems inappropriate. Rowley’s arguments are all bluster and bullshit, unspoiled by facts, logic or nuance. [sic]

Setting aside this author’s own failure to acknowledge the nuanced difference between canceling an event and rescheduling it, the implications of his statements are chilling. To be sure, the mechanisms for alleged censorship—individual administrators versus numerous students—are different. But this doesn’t change the fact that it is still censorship. Effectively, Alquist is saying that freedom of speech cannot be squelched by administrators but that is perfectly acceptable for students to do so. This is to democratize rights—put bluntly, to subject them to mob rule—something the very notion of rights is meant to guard against.

This is precisely the problem at Brown. Individual troublemakers are indeed punished (the pie-throwing incident, for example, resulted in at least one suspension). But mob tactics are treated with the kid gloves of committees and group therapy. Understandably, mobs are more difficult to deal with than individuals, but this only raises the question of how such mob scenes could be permitted in the first place. Again: where were the campus police?

Of course, this is not to say there hasn’t been any progress at Brown since 2001. The aftermath of the reparations ad controversy saw a veritable renaissance of right-leaning student groups, including the revival of the College Republicans and the founding of Students for Liberty, Students for Life, and The Brown Spectator (this writer was a founding editor). When those students graduated they continued their fight for intellectual diversity and academic freedom at Brown with an alumni organization, The Foundation for Intellectual Diversity.

There are other bright spots as well. In 2003, John Tomasi, a professor of political philosophy, founded the Political Theory Project, a sort of a department-within-a-department which hosts its own classes, sponsors a student-run journal of political theory, and even sports its own mini-faculty of post-doctoral fellows, who bypass the usual echo chamber-enhancing process that prospective new professors undergo when they are vetted by existing faculties. The signature events of the Political Theory Project, the Janus Forums—named after the ancient Roman two-faced god of gates, doors, and other passages—have featured full-throttled debates and discussions on the merits of capitalism versus socialism, the existence of collective bargaining rights, and the reinstatement of ROTC on campus.

But one worries that the Spectator and the Political Theory Project are less wellsprings of widespread renewal, than embattled oases of free thought and inquiry in hostile intellectual territory where the authentic life of the mind is being choked out by the weeds of ideological intolerance and political correctness.

Standing ready to deliver his remarks at Brown, on October 29, Kelly reportedly only got in a few words edgewise before being drowned out by the frantic hollering of students. His only recorded words come in the form of a question: “Are we ready to go forward?” Unfortunately, at Brown, the answer at the moment is a resounding “no.”

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island.

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  • Guest

    Any federal funding that goes to Brown should be immediately cut off unless they can come up with a plan that guarantees that invited speakers can exercise full freedom of speech. After that Raymond Kelly should be appointed president of this PC den of thieves.

  • herb benty

    The “mob” is really a self-righteous mini-Bolshevik revolution. Communism ruins everything that is true, profound, lovely and lasting. I blame the embeded Marxist professors. It takes a lot of brainwashing to turn a freedom loving, American kid into a raving commie.

    • laura r

      your not getting this. trends are trends, its not the content its a the form. it doesnt matter what the message is, people do what the crowd does. package it correctly, its cool, its edgy, what ever. i do believe the admisnistration can choose the speakers, its not the choice of the students. if they misbehave they can be kicked out of the lecture. but since the adminstration agrees w/the students thats the bottom line.

      • herb benty

        The mob does what it was told to do, or prepared to do. Agree.

        • laura r

          im sure most of these 18yr olds dont even know what they are protesting. its a social event.

          • herb benty

            It’s the “in ” thing to protest, an outlet for youthful energy,however, attacking our hard earned rights and freedoms, turning our “higher learning” institutions into Marxist indoctrination camps, is unacceptable.

  • Rocky Mountain

    If there is any federal money going to Brown for research or any other purpose it should be immediately cutoff. After that, Raymond Kelly should be appointed as President of the University.

    • laura r

      im sure saudi arabia has given millions.

      • Rocky Mountain

        Rather than cut that off (no pun or irony intended) take the Saudi money and give it to the Department of Jewish studies.

        • laura r

          its trendy on campus to be anti semitic. ever hear of “jews for peace”? they support palestine.

          • Rocky Mountain

            They’re not the only Jewish group and there are several individual Jews who publically support the Palestinian cause. However, as I grow old I sort of accept the fact that its not going to stop, at least in my lifetime, and I’m resigned to living out my life in a chaotic, senseless, and ultra violent world; not the one I imagined when I was a boy.

  • Elizabeth capecod

    They are the young,privileged and ignorant. Let them or a loved one be the victim of gun crime and they’ll be singing a different tune.

  • Jason

    Dunk all of those idiots in cold ice. Not a single one of those students is worthy of the name. Studying is about the pursuit of knowledge, not conformity. Disgusting how brainwashed these people have become. They dont know the meaning of freedom. They dont get taught the sacrifices that people throughout the ages have made for it. They are not students, they are sheep following their totalitarian masters.

  • Jason P

    I actually disagree with Beale. Alquist is right that the administration’s action in the Providence College case is different from the students actions at Brown … but Alquist is wrong in defending the students while denying the administration’s prerogative to select speakers.

    Free speech is a subcategory of property rights. It’s your freedom to use your resources to facilitate an expression of thoughts or feelings.

    The administration is entitled to select speakers; the students have no rights to veto the administration’s choice by preventing the speaker from speaking.

    Of course, it is appropriate for a college to invite a broad selection of speakers for the students’ consideration. And it is appropriate for a college to inculcate respect for speakers with challenging views. Rights protect the prerogative of the property owner; wisdom protects the reputation of the school. The latter is non-existent in today’s universities.

    • Rob Hobart

      “Free speech is a subcategory of property rights.”
      Um… what???

      • Jason P

        You never heard this, Rob? Free speech doesn’t mean access to a stage or TV camera. It doesn’t mean you are entitled to four paragraphs in your local newspaper. It means the owners of a theatre, TV station, newspaper,or school decide how to use their property to express what they believe. Of course, you own your own mouth and can sound-off all you want in your home or even the public square.

        Property rights means nothing else than who controls the property. That’s who has the right to use it as a platform.

  • mattogilvie55

    If I owned a business, I would refuse to even interview anyone with an ivy league degree, and I would tell them why: Inasmuch as I could avoid it, I would not hire a leftwinger.

    • Rocky Mountain

      The problem with refusing to hire Ivy Leaguers is that you are probably limiting yourself; i.e. there are tons of colleges that have or would behave exactly the same way. And there are conservative students on many of these campuses; e.g. Dartmouth.

    • Wolfthatknowsall

      I will echo Rocky Mountain’s sentiments. I’m about as conservative as they get, and my PhD came from Princeton. On my wall is a portrait of my President … Ronald Reagan.

      • Drakken

        How in the heck did you get through that den of villainy and drain bamage unscathed? When I went through my college, it was later in life and I used to give the professors a nasty case of the leftist vapors, actually it was quite amusing to watch as they had complete meltdowns. Congratulations, you made it !

        • Rocky Mountain

          There is some political “diversity” between the Ivies and Princeton and Dartmouth, while certainly no real enemy of liberalism, still maintain a habitat for some conservative academics and students. In the sixties I was an undergrad at a well-known radical college and one of my professors with his PhD from Princeton stood up pretty resolutely against the howling mob of leftists that began their domination of the campus political life that still continues, perhaps completely unbroken, to this day.

        • Wolfthatknowsall

          I basically had to hide my political inclinations, especially, since I was working on a dissertation in philosophy. But I concentrated on my work and teaching, and my dissertation was on Martin Heidegger’s works, which marked me as “one of them”.

          Later, after gaining tenure, I came “out of the closet” as a conservative, as it were. I lost many “friends” when I did that, but my sections had waiting lists of eager students.

          Once, a student had an outburst at something I said (I don’t remember what), screaming, “I can go to heaven or hell at any time, and come back!” When her outburst was over, I smiled and calmly said, “Well, why don’t you do so, and Monday you can give the class a report on what they are like.”

          Congratulations to you, too!

  • Clare Spark

    Brown U is a bastion of multiculturalism. How to reverse it, if at all? See “Undoing multiculturalism.” And see the preceding blog too, “Multiculturalism: Cui bono?” MC, contrary to some opinions, is not communist in origin, but a progressive innovation meant to strike a balance between ethnic ties and assimilated Americanism.

    • $22691968

      Clare, I’m sure you mean well, but your articles are so damn confusing and convoluted because of your constant practice of stringing big words together irrespective of their context or meaning. They very much remind me of someone trying to impress others through the use of fancy, intellectually-sounding words. I imagine that most people, like myself, either don’t know what the hell you’re even saying or they’re getting glimpses of some concepts here and there, but rarely the full picture. I suspect that you’re an intelligent woman, but the verbal clutter in your articles is unbearable.

      I hope you’ll consider writing in ways that people can understand, perhaps in a more simplistic style? Your purpose is to communicate and not just sound like an ivory tower intellectual, right? Have you bothered to read William Zinsser, ‘On Writing Well’? Check out the two chapters on simplicity and clutter. I think you ail find much that will help you.

    • Drakken

      The only way your going to reverse this communism is by a purge.

  • tagalog

    Please stop with the apologizing and actually DO something about the loss of freedom in our culture. Expel some of these brownshirts.

  • laura r

    agreed, she could have said this in a few simple paragraphs. wire her mouth shut. bottom line is: the problem is not the students but the adminstration. end of case. anything else i missed?

    • Jason P

      Hey, I like reading her articles. I don’t always agree; but she’s well-read and tips me off to another perspective. But each to their own.

  • daveinelpaso

    I think it is ironic that Brown University students use the tactics of the brown shirts to shut down civil debate in 21st century America. You really can’t make this stuff up.

  • Lysander Spooner

    The stop and frisk program is an anti-constitutional monstrosity imposed by the state based on other unconstitutional impositions, namely the war on drugs and the deprivation of the right to bear arms. I find it somewhat poetic that Kelly and his supporters are in such a huff over their rights being violated as they seek to defend their right to violate other people’s rights.

    This case is profoundly different from the unjustifiable censorship of Horowitz and other citizens who are not full-time agents of an oppressive state.

    • Rob Hobart

      There is absolutely nothing unconstitutional about stop-and-frisk.

      • Rocky Mountain

        While I’m prepared to entertain the argument that there might be, I’m more willing to rejoice that law enforcement decided to rip those pages out.

    • Rocky Mountain

      If they didn’t stop and frisk then those freed up from the ‘monstrosity’ would really show us some impositions.

    • ziggy zoggy

      Since when do thugs and criminals have the constitutional right to loiter and carry concealed weapons? Those stupid protesters make it sound like people are being arrested for the color of their skin. That’s ridiculous.

  • montana83

    Why I refuse to give to my alma mater, Harvard. All Ivies are the same. They are hopeless.

    • Rocky Mountain

      Just a casual observation over the past few years leads me to think that Brown and Yale are the worst. Don’t really know or hear much about Penn but Dartmouth and Princeton do have a conservative community of sorts. But the fact is that a lot of the hijinx that we read about isn’t really left or right its just college kids behaving badly.

  • noway2no

    Good little Brown Shirts in training.

  • garyfouse

    During Hitler’s rise to power, Erlangen University near Nuremberg became the first university where the Nazis held a majority of the student government. That earned Erlangen the moniker, “The Brown University”. ( I should note that Erlangen today is a leader in Germany in seeking reconciliation with Jews and recognizing the crimes of the Nazi past. They have a small community of Russian Jewish emigrees.)

    At any rate, perhaps, Brown will earn the title-“The Brown University”. They have a lot of competition.

  • Aaron

    By the time the Supreme Court ruled in support of affirmative action, the university had effectively ceased being the bastion of intellectual intercourse. Instead it has become a hotbed of social engineering with each successive generation trying to lay claim to the great (meaning highly significant) transformation brought about by 60’s radicals.

    No cause is too petty or ill conceived for the unwashed and untried to rally around as so righteous as to allow them to dispense with any kind of decency let alone courtesy.

  • Chris Morrison

    Looking at this from the UK I m afraid to say I expected better from a nation that atleast enshrined the right to free soeech in its constitution as opposed to simply paying lip service to it the way sadly we do over here now. As far as those ‘activists’ are concerned, they want to ask themselves if they really deserve a place at a college of higher education with minds and ears so closed to the idea of open free debate as this.

  • Harry Mac

    What business owner in his right mind would ever hire a graduate of an ivy league institution? Apple under Steve Jobs made it a matter of policy of not hiring them (bozos he called them). Seems to have worked out pretty good for them!

  • ziggy zoggy

    Since when do thugs and criminals have the constitutional right to loiter and carry concealed weapons? Those stupid protesters make it sound like people are being arrested for the color of their skin. That’s ridiculous.