Donald Riddle | Brown University
As is customary for every first-year class that enters Brown University, just over 1500 students walked through the famous Van Winkle gates with wide smiles and even wider eyes— the class of 2020. We had made it, carving out for ourselves a place in a top-tier University that still committed itself to acceptance and liberality. As if sensing our inflated sense of optimism, Christina Paxson stood atop a stage, awaiting the freshly enrolled class both with her typed up speech and solid resolve.
“From the earliest days of this country, college campuses have been at the vanguard of fierce debates about slavery, war, women’s rights and racial justice,” she said to a sea of eager faces. “These discussions create uncomfortable moments, and they should. We’re talking about discussions that create seismic shifts in how we treat each other as people and recognize the rights of individuals. These arguments, debates and even protests are essential to our work and to society at large. If we don’t have these debates — if we limit the flow of ideas — then in 50 years we will be no better than we are today.”
The address could hardly have been more timely. In the few years both preceding and following Paxson’s speech, protests and demonstrations were erupting on college campuses across the nation. To be sure, cities and towns apart from higher education were experiencing the same divisive conflict, but there was a certain weight to the protestors of a university environment. The front held by millennial students was a united one, especially at schools like Brown, where liberal minds far outnumber conservative. Still, whereas it may seem that Paxson will continue on in admiration of said protesters, these kickstarters of argument and debate, she instead proceeds to proffer a suggestion of moral responsibility.
“Every person here has a choice… To be mean-spirited, to engage in divisive rhetoric and to stoop to name-calling and labeling in the hope of pummeling others who don’t share our views into submission… But each of us is also free to aspire to do better: to value others, even as we may disagree with them, to treat people with respect and dignity, to listen to others, and to appreciate and learn from the rich diversity of backgrounds and experiences of the people who comprise this amazing community.
Most proximally, Paxson’s speech appears as a response to a stance taken by The University of Chicago. Mere weeks earlier, the University’s dean of students, John Ellison, administered a letter to that incoming class of 2020, warning students of an experience that will be bereft of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” Whereas the tone and directness of the sentiment varies dramatically from that of Paxson, her idealization of Brown is effectually not so far off from U of C’s. In fact, less than a year later, Paxson and University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer attended a Washington Post forum in which both harmoniously expressed their commitment to freedom of expression for every student, speaker, and guest. Instead, Paxson’s address more accurately supplements a contentious episode that occurred a few years prior.
In late October of 2013, then-NY Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was scheduled to give a lecture titled “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City.” Some may remember Ray Kelly as one of the largest proponents of stop-and-frisk, controversial practice by police officers to stop and pat down suspects so long as that officer has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, is being, or is about to be committed. The controversy, of course, lies in the frequent racial bias demonstrated by police officials in their discretion, and the brutal treatment of suspects that accompany it. According to Brown alum Doreen St. Felix, a week prior to the lecture, “Brown students and members of the Providence grassroots organization Direct Action for Racial Equality (Dare), circulated a petition demanding that the University cancel the lecture. More than 500 professors, administrators, students, workers, activists, and Providence residents signed.” Regardless, the University refused to cancel the event.
On October 29th, Ray Kelly arrived as schedule to the List Art Center, met first by protestors outside of the building, chanting things such as “Brown is complicit” and “Racist Kelly.” Opposition to Kelly’s presence did not cease there, however. Upon taking the stage inside of the venue, protesters in the crowd interrupted his lecture with fists firmly in the air, reading first “a statement demanding accountability from Brown institution for bringing Kelly to the university under the auspices of a ‘successful policing policy’ and for its role in perpetuating systematic oppression,” according to St. Felix. The proceeding thirty minutes showered Kelly with heckles and chants to the tune of “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police.”
As one could imagine, the affair gained itself much speculation: a predominantly liberal school protesting against dialogue with someone from the political right. It was a divisive occurrence that pitted student against student, a localized manifestation of a much broader conflict which, to this day, afflicts the entire country. Whereas some thought the demonstration to be a flagrant infringement upon freedom of speech, others saw it quite clearly as an engagement with the freedom to protest. Paxson, perhaps as to be expected, defended into the former of the two positions.
“The conduct of disruptive members of the audience is indefensible and an affront both to civil democratic society and to the University’s core values of dialogue and the free exchange of views,” Paxson wrote in a statement shortly after the event.
Indeed, Paxson’s words align nicely with the convocation speech she would deliver three years later. Whereas some might stay she steadily maintained her resolve, others might assert she simply failed to learn anything. As binary as the positions might serve to make the scenario appear, the fact of the matter is that right and wrong seldom exist so cleanly in matters of politicized decisions.
I draw on Paxson’s 2016 rhetoric once more, specifically her point as to the choice each individual has to listen to, learn from, and appreciate all those with identities and backgrounds variable from their own. Undoubtedly, dialogue between Kelly and a distraught could have lead to such an outcome, but was it not equally as likely that it would have lead somewhere else entirely?
The University’s decision to title the lecture “Proactive Policing…” was inarguably bold. Police brutality was hardly foreign to the country in 2013, and even less so to many members of Brown’s community; Kelly, being called under pretenses of a highly effective and successful police program, comes to emblemize the silencing of the many narratives that contradict both Kelly’s and Brown’s portrayal of the NYPD. Far be it from me or any other individual to deny the validity of the trauma and distrust felt by certain people in regards to law enforcement. All that to say, Paxson’s admonition of student’s actions as “indefensible” is about as audacious as the title of the lecture itself (a better label perhaps being something to the effective of “A Discourse in Policing and Policy, as a conversation is what the University desires so.)
Still, as is often the case in cases of free speech and freedom to protest, neither side is completely absent of error. For this particular scene at Brown University, I do find the slights of the protesters to be more justifiable than those of the protested, but to overgeneralize such a statement would be dangerous. Instead, we return one final time to Paxson’s convocation address. With language much less terse than her 2013 statement (a sign that Paxson possibly did learn something from the whole ordeal), Paxson invokes a spirit of personal responsibility and accountability.
To promote free speech and the trade of ideas, as opposite as they may be, both individual and community must be doing so for the right reasons. It is easy for either side, left or right, to silence the other in the face of conflicting beliefs. What’s equally as easy is to debate ad nauseum with the simple goal of proving a point one does not intend in to change, propagating harmful ideas on under the protection of the first amendment as a means to force the validity of one’s point. Each of these cases are equally as volatile as they other, firmly halting the progression of quality and the democratic process. As the will of no one person is clear to any other than themself, this becomes the function of personal responsibility.
It was not the will of the protestors to infringe upon free speech, but rather empower their voices to an individual and university that consistently failed to acknowledge them; neither is it necessarily the will of the boy wearing a republican t-shirt in class to silence and attack all of his left-leaning peers. That’s to say, true freedom of expression and exchange of thought can only occur in so far as every person involved remain as empathetic as they are different. I think for young minds this mental malleability is more accessible, which gives colleges and universities the appropriate environment for debate and dialogue to occur; still, to expect its happening without error would be too idealistic. For as long as the freedom of speech has been indoctrinated, it has existed though a multitude of historical and social contexts, each at one time novel. Only conflict will allow us to firmly concretely understand the present so as to forge a clearer future, so best those conflicts transpire among the individuals to whom that future will be charged.