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Brown University’s Two-Faced Attitude Toward Free Speech

By November 18, 2014

This afternoon, Brown University’s Janus Forum will be hosting a debate titled, “How Should Colleges Handle Sexual Assault?” The debate will feature Wendy McElroy, ifeminists.com editor and “rape culture” skeptic, facing off against Feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti. In response to some students’ complaints about the event, Brown president Christina Paxson announced the creation of an alternative event to be held at the very same time.

Paxson declared in a campus-wide email that her counterprogramming, titled “The Research on Rape Culture,” will provide students with “research and facts” about “the role that community norms and values play in sexual assault.” The message isn’t hard to discern: No need to hear the debate, folks; here’s a better event that will tell you everything Brown University thinks you need to know.

Support for the creation of this alternate event hinges on the idea that Brown is responsible for the emotional “safety” of its students. Indeed, The Brown Daily Herald reported that “multiple students have said they feel the event … goes against the University’s mission to create a safe and supportive environment for survivors.” Event organizers clearly anticipated this reaction, telling the Herald that they would be “hosting Sexual Assault Peer Education in Salomon 203 at the same time as the debate if at any point during the lecture students need to leave and receive support.” But Paxson’s announcement of the “Research on Rape Culture” event took this effort a step further by actually discouraging students from even attempting to listen to the debate. Given the debate organizers’ prior arrangements to provide support to anyone who actually felt the need for it, Paxson’s choice to counterprogram the event makes little sense in terms of “emotional safety.” But it makes all the sense in the world if you assume the real goal is to provide an intellectual cocoon for students—an effort to create a ideological bubble on campus in which students’ beliefs will be free from challenge.

It’s important to note that Brown’s actual mission (as articulated on its website) says nothing about emotional or intellectual “safety” and a whole lot about free inquiry. Yet Paxson’s response (and that of some student supporters) threatens the spirit of academic freedom and reinforces ideological rigidity on campus. Moreover, as The Brown Daily Herald pointed out in an excellent editorial published today, Paxson’s tacit condemnation of the Janus Forum event represents a bizarre shift in her attitude toward free speech since the shouting down of Ray Kelly’s lecture last October. The Daily Herald’s Editorial Board writes:

[F]orcing students to choose between attending these two events effectively marginalizes the importance of unfiltered dialogue and discussion, a point ironically underscored by the administration in its criticism of the hindered Ray Kelly lecture.

[…]

Paxson’s plan seems to contradict her response to the Kelly event regarding free speech. In the words of Paxson in her campus-wide response to the Ray Kelly incident, “Brown has sound policies that promote and preserve freedom of expression, even when the ideas being expressed may be abhorrent.” Though the character of the Ray Kelly lecture may have indeed dealt with an issue not explicitly present on campus (i.e. the stop-and-frisk policy of the New York Police Department), this underlying tenet of free expression cannot merely adapt to the topic of discussion, regardless of its ultimate degree of sensitivity or attention.

Following the Kelly heckler’s veto fiasco, Paxson issued a report publicly denouncing the spectacle as antithetical to Brown’s values and even suggested that protestors might face disciplinary action. Paxson’s free speech fervor, though, was apparently short-lived.

Organizers of the Janus Forum debate also expressed disappointment in the way Paxson reacted to criticism of Wendy McElroy’s participation in the event. They point out that her debate opponent, Jessica Valenti, would most likely address the “research on rape culture” Paxson deems so important. In a Daily Herald column, the group stressed its commitment to “leaving no belief unchallenged, no matter how dearly held,” and argued that the alternate event stifles, rather than deepens, conversation about the salient issue of sexual assault. “It is an unsettling precedent for our president to use her position to decide what counts as acceptable discourse,” writes The Janus Forum.

As a 2014 alumna of Brown University, I find this controversy tragically ironic. In the aftermath of Ray Kelly’s derailed lecture, many students I spoke with stated that they did not exactly object to Kelly’s invitation to speak; rather, they felt that Brown’s offering a platform to Kelly served as an endorsement of the former New York City police commissioner’s stop-and-frisk policies. These students claimed that a Janus Forum-style debate with Kelly would have been appropriate and valuable. But just one year later, as Brown prepares to host another controversial speaker—in a Janus Forum debate, no less—the campus’ commitment to challenging and being challenged by ideas seems only to have atrophied.

Schools: Brown University