My first full-time job after graduating from Brown in the mid-1980s was serving as the personal driver and mailroom supervisor for Senator Joseph R. Biden of Delaware. I have never voted for a Republican for president, and I consider myself a proud and card-carrying liberal. Nevertheless, I was sickened by the story in the January/February BAM that described how New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly was forced off the lecture podium last October by students protesting his “stop-and-frisk” policy (“Stop and Think,” Elms).
I am reminded of the famous concurring opinion by one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s liberal lions, Justice Louis Brandeis, in the 1927 First Amendment case of Whitney v. California: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression. Such must be the rule if authority is to be reconciled with freedom.”
Alas, the Kelly incident is a stark reminder of the maxim “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In 1981, a number of student protesters sparked national headlines for standing up and reciting the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll in the middle of a speech at Brown by William Casey, who was then serving as the director of the CIA under Ronald Reagan. While those students certainly caused quite a stir, at least Mr. Casey was able, if my memory is correct, to eventually complete his talk. A disciplinary board convened by the University ultimately found thirteen students “guilty of infringement on the rights of others to participate in a University function,” although no actual penalty was imposed.
If Brown is to retain its hard-earned and well-deserved reputation as a tolerant and progressive institution that values the free exchange of ideas, it must deal swiftly and harshly with those who are intolerant, who promote their political agenda—even a progressive one—through brute force rather than the power of their ideas, and who attempt to stifle dissenting or opposing voices.
Today, I am ashamed to be a liberal and embarrassed for my beloved alma mater. I am convinced that by adopting extreme tactics to promote their cause—a cause with which I happen to agree—the Kelly protesters have accomplished little more than alienating the great majority who reside somewhere in the middle of the ideological spectrum, while giving aid, comfort, and ammunition to those whose politics and policies are abhorrent to them.
John Keating ’84
We were disheartened to see the BAM’s overage of the protests over former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s planned speech. The piece suggests that there was a general consensus that the protests were misguided. Even the title is dismissive; if only, the BAM insinuates, the protesters had bothered to “think” before objecting.
We and more than forty other alumni signed a letter to President Paxson in January noting that we believed the student protesters “behaved admirably in denouncing Commissioner Kelly’s actions and in calling out injustice.” It’s our view that the students and community organizations involved thought long and hard about the racially discriminatory practices of the NYPD under Kelly’s direction, as well as about their impact on New York City’s communities. And then, in a strong showing of how, in the words of President Paxson, these students and community members “value freedom of expression,” they spoke out.
They deserve our support, not discipline or condemnation. The free exchange of ideas encompasses more than polite discourse, and we are saddened to see that the University’s response has, thus far, shown little regard for the importance of protest and direct action in the University community. If the University truly values such freedom, the members of the Committee on the Events of October 29th and President Paxson should agree.
Cristina Gallo ’02
Molly Thomas-Jensen ’02
I realize that I’m taking a minority position on the controversy, but I think it’s worth stating that Brown University deserves a lot of the blame for what happened—not for directly causing it, but for not anticipating its possibility. Just as one does not light the fuse on a stick of dynamite without expecting an explosion, so an institution should not book a speaker who represents a controversial policy that restricts the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of a segment of a city’s population without expecting it to be at least controversial and potentially explosive.
Taubman Center director Marion Orr, who booked Commissioner Kelly, told a crowd of protesters outside the center that they should remember the importance of open and civil discourse. Giving one person a microphone to defend his position, without the opportunity for rebuttal (a Q&A session is hardly the same) is not what I think of as open and civil discourse. If that is what the University wanted to achieve, the event could have been presented as a debate between Commissioner Kelly and, say, Stephen Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU.
In no way do I support demonstrations that disrupt a presentation to the point where it must be cancelled. But many Brown students are minorities, or have friends who are minorities, some of whom may well live in New York City, so this issue is very personal to them. Had the University had the foresight to pay heed to the petition that was circulated—or better yet had it included student representation in the decision-making process in the first place—either Mr. Kelly might not have been booked or perhaps Professor of Africana Studies Tricia Rose could have been given a chance for rebuttal. Instead, no one has come off looking very good, including Brown.
John Leistritz ’65
Perhaps the University should teach a course on unintended consequences. After the October 29 demonstration that did not allow Raymond Kelly to speak, Bill O’Reilly on his television show said that Brown was no longer a great institution and that it lacked leadership.
Did the protesters think that the reputation of the school would be so tarnished by their actions as a consequence? What if a group of Southern sympathizers shouted down Abraham Lincoln and he never delivered the Gettysburg Address? What if Klan members shouted down Martin Luther King Jr. and he never delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech? On the flip side, what if Hitler’s brownshirts had allowed Jewish protesters to speak?
Not that Commissioner Kelly’s speech would rise to those levels, but we will never know. Those who had a legitimate question will not receive an answer, and perhaps the protesters’ fellow students and alumni will be hurt.
Bob Gorman ’61
I was depressed to see that some students’ rationalizations for their close-minded behavior continued beyond the night of October 29.
I can only hope that the author of the story misrepresented the views of Justice Gaines ’16 that “safety outweighed freedom of speech.” That kind of thinking justifies the very behavior that Justice Gaines appeared to be protesting. Freedom of speech, among other rights, has been strongly curtailed since 9/11, with various government agencies making the argument that Gaines made in the article.
As an alumnus and as a faculty member of another university, I am distressed to see this kind of thinking going on among today’s students. I hope Justice Gaines and his fellow activists can develop more effective ways of getting their points across. Using the methods of those whose methods you wish to critique is not effective.
Michael Sugerman ’86
I was amused by BAM’s willingness to publish letters expressing disappointment at Brown students’ “intolerance.” During New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s visit, students finally went far enough to be reprimanded! Too bad tolerance is the only “virtue” worth standing for at Brown. Civil people who address important topics like atheism, homosexuality, abortion, and evolution from a Biblical perspective are always met with the worst kinds of intolerant responses at Brown.
Rob Green ’90