An official inquiry committee convened by Brown University has released a report (PDF) that includes more details regarding what happened four months ago when hecklers at the university brought former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s planned speech to a grinding halt. The committee of eight was composed of students and faculty and was supported by two staff members.
The October 2013 incident sparked debate over whether those who shouted Kelly down were engaging in an act of mob censorship or simply exercising their own right to free speech. FIRE sharply criticized the protestors’ exercise of the heckler’s veto, noting that “[s]ilencing another’s message by sheer volume and force is an exercise in censorship.” A Brown Daily Herald poll found that just 13% of students agreed with shutting down the lecture via indoor protests with a vast majority—73%—disapproving.
The committee’s report reviewed the timeline of events leading up to and including the night of Kelly’s speech. A forthcoming report will speak to how Brown should be responding to the incident. Inside Higher Ed has the story and relays reactions from both sides of the debate.
According to the report, many students opposed to Kelly’s policies demanded that he be disinvited, but Brown officials reaffirmed their commitment to the event. Interestingly, the report notes that Brown administrators declined to take action in response to students defacing posters advertising the event with swastikas, incorrectly concluding that this constituted “free speech.” As we have pointed out here on The Torch before, vandalism is not protected speech.
To ensure students were able to respond to Kelly, administrators and Kelly’s staff agreed to a 20-minute lecture followed by at least 60 minutes dedicated to a question and answer session. In justifying the ultimate decision to cancel Kelly’s lecture as protesters shouted him down, Brown officials interviewed for the report cited a concern over “tension in the room [that might] escalate to violence,” although not all officials shared this concern.
Commenting to the Brown Daily Herald, a Brown alumnus shared this reaction:
There can be no “contextualizing” of what happened at Brown. Unintimidated discourse should be the inviolate “context”—and that is an absolute. “Contextualizing” is what happens when the bullies win. The police chief of New York—whose perspective would have been, at the very least, informative—was shouted down by two dozen adolescents. Meanwhile, the intelligent part of the Brown community—the other nine thousand—was denied an opportunity to question him.
Indeed, as FIRE pointed out in a statement to Inside Higher Ed, the audience missed out on what could have been a powerful and enlightening dialogue:
The heckler's veto is incompatible with liberal principles of freedom of expression. Speech with which we disagree must be met by more speech, not mob censorship. Shouting down Kelly denied all present the opportunity to participate in what was to have been over an hour's worth of questions and answers. Brown students and faculty are promised the free exchange of ideas—even those ideas that many find objectionable. We trust that the second phase of the report will recognize and uphold Brown's commitment to the free exchange of ideas, a necessary component of the search for truth.