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Brown Releases Final Response to Ray Kelly ‘Heckler’s Veto’ Incident

Eleven months ago, my colleague Will Creeley wrote about a disappointing incident at Brown University in which a crowd shouted down New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, halting what was to be a speech followed by a question-and-answer session for students. The hecklers objected to Kelly’s enforcement of stop-and-frisk policies, and they opted to silence Kelly completely rather than challenge him to answer their questions during the allotted time.

As Will wrote at the time, Brown President Christina Paxson condemned the hecklers, and free speech advocates lamented the lost opportunity for discussion. In February, a committee convened by Brown University released a report detailing the circumstances surrounding the event.

Last week, Paxson released another report (PDF), reaffirming that this act of censorship by the crowd is inconsistent with Brown’s policies supporting a free exchange of ideas on campus. In the report, Paxson wrote that students “do not need to choose between supporting freedom of expression or racial equality. Protecting freedom of expression and furthering human rights are mutually reinforcing … .”

Paxson’s report promises to foster open debate and free expression of all ideas by enforcing Code of Conduct violations against disruptive students. Paxson also aims to provide ample opportunities for visiting speakers to share a range of viewpoints. (Importantly, however, she clarifies that no event needs to present more than one viewpoint.) At the same time, Paxson commits to taking steps to ensure all members of Brown’s diverse community “are fully included in the University life so that diversity enriches the community to the fullest extent possible.”

FIRE commends Paxson for once again taking a strong stance in support of free speech. We hope to see Brown inspired by this incident to revise its speech codes (which currently earn Brown a “red light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database) so that all of the university’s policies are consistent with its stated commitment to free expression.

The full report is available on Brown’s website.

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