Brown University's Complicity in the Disruption of Ray Kelly’s Speech

Joshua Bridges

Brown University’s mishandling of former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s speech on October 29, 2013, continues to receive national attention. In brief, here is how events have unfolded.

After protesters—many of whom were locals from Providence, Rhode Island—repeatedly interrupted Kelly, two university vice presidents, unable to silence the protesters and unwilling to have them forcibly removed, cancelled the event mid-speech. A national uproar ensued. In response to the public attention, in early November 2013, Brown University President Christina Paxson convened a committee to the study the events. The committee’s “charge” was to be undertaken in  two phases: (1) to investigate and establish the what, why, who, when, and how of the events, and (2) to make recommendations “that will establish Brown as a leader in supporting an inclusive environment for members of our community while upholding our deep commitment to the free exchange of ideas.” The committee released its Phase One findings on February 18, 2014.

It is a tangled story.

What the report makes abundantly clear is that the university administration was fully aware that a protest would ensue, and that it adopted a permissive stance toward student actions which enabled the lecture’s eventual cancellation.

Here are some of the report’s highlights.

On October 23, six days before the event, would-be student protesters contacted event organizers by email; they expressed concern over Kelly’s forthcoming speech and requested a meeting. The administration became aware that the students objected to Kelly’s presence on October 24. On October 25, Prof. Marion Orr, the event’s chief organizer, received an email in which student groups expressed “dissent” from the administration’s choice to allow Kelly to speak. Orr phoned the students on October 26 to alleviate their concerns. She called during a meeting between the dissenting students and Providence residents, who were in the midst of coordinating their actions. The phone conversation yielded no agreement between Orr, the students, and the Providence residents. On October 28, the day before Kelly’s address, Brown officials received a petition with about 500 signatures calling for the cancellation of Kelly’s speech. The university made a generous counter offer: they would ask Kelly if he would extend his stay to meet with the students personally, double the length of the question and answer period, and sponsor a follow-up event so that the students’ “perspectives” could be heard.

The students rejected the offer.

When the administration learned later that day that protesters had defaced images of Kelly with swastikas, it decided that “the symbols should be protected as a form of free speech and that the flyers would not be taken down.” In the evening, Brown officials refused to attend a vigil in which plans for the protest were finalized because they feared the students would feel “spied on.”

Finally, the university received an anonymous email from a “concerned student” the morning of the day Kelly was scheduled to speak that warned that over 70 students were planning to enter the lecture hall “under the pretense of attending the lecture” and stage a walk-out.

The university was clearly aware that a protest was going to ensue. All of its coddling resulted in the now-famous protest which led to the cancellation of Kelly’s speech.

The committee’s report concludes circumspectly:

[T]here are many lessons to be learned from this episode. These lessons will inform the committee’s work as we enter the second phase of our charge.

Many Lessons

Indeed, there are “many lessons” for Brown to learn, especially from events on other campuses throughout the country. Brown’s investigative committee should recognize that the Kelly incident is part of a larger national trend in which colleges and universities allow protesters to do as they please, which leaves speakers unprotected from the heckler’s veto. In this context, Brown’s forthcoming attempt (Phase Two) to “establish [itself] as a leader in supporting an inclusive environment…while upholding [its] deep commitment to the free exchange of ideas” is likely to be a watershed in how university administrations handle unruly protesters.

The national atmosphere in which the Brown University administration is undertaking its investigation is one that will be familiar to many readers, but it’s worth recounting a few important examples.  In 2006, Columbia University security allowed protesters to attack Minuteman Project leaders Jim Gilchrist and Marvin Stewart, who were forced to flee the auditorium. A year later, eight of the student attackers were given non-permanent “disciplinary warnings” which were removed from their academic records in 2008. Likewise, in 2009, conservative writer Don Feder was unable to finish his speech at UMass when protesters (according to Feder) interrupted him “roughly once every fifteen seconds.” In the Boston Globe, a university spokesman glossed over the students’ behavior by generically endorsing UMass’s commitment to an “open exchange of ideas.”

           A Tale of Two UC-Irvines

Examples of inaction abound. If Brown truly wants to establish itself “as a leader in supporting an inclusive environment for members of our community while upholding our deep commitment to the free exchange of ideas,” it should look, rather, to the example of UC-Irvine, which, while once permissive of student interruptions, has recently changed its policy to one that actually curtails disruptive behavior.

In 2010, anti-Israel protesters repeatedly interrupted a speech by then-Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, accusing him of “propagating murder” and being an “accomplice to genocide.” Every few minutes, a student in the hostile section of the audience would stand up, shout at Oren, and receive applause before being escorted out of the room by police. Oren could not finish his speech until the protesters left of their own accord. An investigation by school officials led to the discipline of individual students and the suspension of the Muslim Student Union for a quarter, which planned and orchestrated the disruption.

Irvine’s response to the Oren incident marked a sea change in school policy. In 2007, a speech by writer Daniel Pipes, a foreign policy analyst and prominent critic of radical Islam, was interrupted at Irvine by Muslim protesters chanting anti-Israel slogans.

No students were punished. Instead, UC-Irvine issued a statement which emphasized that, after beginning their chant, “the protesting audience members stepped into the aisle and peacefully left the building,” as well as noting that “there were no further interruptions.” In other words, nothing was amiss.  

The High Road, or the Low?

Let’s be sure to keep Brown in mind. Will Brown join the list of universities above, which failed to ensure free-flowing speech? Will it be old UC-Irvine, or new UC-Irvine?  

To this point, Brown has been culpable in its inability to maintain a peaceful forum for the free exchange of ideas. Leading up to and during the protest, the administration failed to take the actions that would have ensured that Commissioner Kelly would be free to speak, and that audience members would be free to engage him in a question and answer session. Now the committee has entered into Phase Two with what appears to be a full and accurate account of the facts. And that account shows the university’s negligence in not properly preparing for the obvious eventuality of a disruptive protest. How can the university now punish the students for their actions, when it was the administration’s coddling which gave them a platform?  Brown University has found itself in a bind of its own making, one which will be hard to escape. But the same could have once been said about UC-Irvine, which, despite difficult waters, was able to right the ship.

Let’s be clear on these matters: no school that allows invited speakers to be shouted down can in good faith say that it supports free speech and the open exchange of ideas. And speakers will be shouted down by students as long as doing so carries no serious consequences for them. This is not to say that any student who heckles a speaker should immediately be expelled. Strong beliefs elicit passion, and passion clouds judgment. No doubt more than a few of those involved in the aforementioned incidents now regret their actions. Their lives should not be ruined over one bad choice. They should, however, be held responsible for their actions.

But will Brown University also own up to its own failings?

In the case of UC-Irvine, by suspending the Muslim Student Union for engineering the disruption of Oren’s speech, the administration was able to send a clear message that such disrespectful behavior would not be tolerated. Lenient punishments do not send such a message. Neither do abstract expressions of support for free speech. The best way for schools to prevent speeches from being interrupted is to punish the interrupters in a meaningful fashion. Here’s to hoping that, in dealing with the students involved in the Kelly incident, Brown leaves old UC-Irvine behind and follows the example of the new. 

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