Brown University Retreats From Free Speech

The leftist Gestapo's choke-hold on intellectual diversity on full display.

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 FrontPageMag.com 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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