Table of Contents

Our next post is from FIRE intern Lily Tran, a rising sophomore at Brown University

At Brown, No Room For Compromise

Many people are surprised when I mention the presence of a College Republicans club on my campus.  I’ve gotten incredulous looks and remarks that they had no idea such a group existed at Brown. Brown is a “liberal” university, in all senses of the word. The makeup of the student population is so overwhelmingly liberal that Professor Ross Cheit, who teaches a large introductory class, found that liberals outnumbered conservatives 4:1. 

In addition, the majority of students at Brown and administrators seem to agree that free speech is fine, except when it contradicts their own beliefs. Those who oppose the accepted orthodoxy are treated with scorn and disdain, near ostracism by the student body. This leads, unsurprisingly, to the chilling effect, when students and groups such as College Republicans feel as if they have to tiptoe around and cater to the obnoxiously loud majority. 

Thus, the liberal inclination of the campus silences the more moderate conservatives and creates furor among the more radical faction. Students are taught to voice their disagreement with other students’ speech by tearing down posters or throwing away newspapers. More importantly, they are not taught that the way to deal with contentious speech is with more speech. The culture fosters extremity and intolerance instead of communication.

This culture is incompatible with the ideals of furthering knowledge. Mill’s prediction that “uncontested speech degenerates into dead dogma” rings true. Instead of a “free exchange of ideas,” lectures generate raging criticisms and rants during Q&A, despite what was said. The sessions often resemble battlefields; questions are fired that seek to discredit the speaker and his ideas without aiming to improve dialogue. More surprisingly, this environment is encouraged by the student body, as groups attempt to find speakers who will anger large numbers of people, simply to attract a crowd. More substantive speakers are looked over as being too “tame.” 

Then, in the fall of 2006, the Reformed University Fellowship’s status as a student organization was revoked by Brown University under suspicious circumstances.

More conspicuous than the disappearance of RUF was the lack of coverage on the incident. Instead of students rising up and protesting these actions, there was a predictable silence surrounding this issue. Instead of espousing Voltaire’s principle that “I may disagree with what you have to say, but will fight to death for your right to say it,” the notoriously politically active Brown students were content to let this fly under the radar. The same students who were up in arms over issues such as Darfur and allegations of racial profiling among campus police chose to remain silent because “this issue doesn’t involve them.” 

But they are wrong. Any instances where the administrators err involve all students on the Brown campus, not just students who are ideologically in line with the victims. 

How are today’s youth to be taught to value opposing opinions, when they are exposed to the rigidness of thought in today’s colleges, a function of a lack of meaningful exchange between different ideologies? Where do we go from here?

Lily Tran is a rising sophomore at Brown University (Class of ’10), where she is studying Political Science and Economics.  Lily originally hails from Arcadia, CA and misses the lack of humidity on sunny summer days.  Her interests run the gamut from the usual (tennis, reading, and daydreaming) to the unusual (fencing, Moto-X, and constitutional law).

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.