On October 30, 2013, student grievances at Brown University reached a boiling point.
When New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly arrived on campus that day to deliver a speech entitled “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City,” he was greeted by a mass of student protestors brandishing signs with the words “Ray(cist) Kelly” in bold, red letters. As the orchestrated protest gained momentum outside the LIST Art Center, it exuded an energy singular to Brown’s vibrant culture of student activism. Amid chants of “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” the students participated in a rich legacy of student protest that they had inherited from luminary Brown alums, such as Elliot Maxwell and Ira Magaziner – the original champions of the Open Curriculum in the 1960s.
Yet, as students filed into the LIST auditorium to hear Kelly speak, the protest quickly tumbled out of control. Protestors had meticulously prepared short statements to read in the lecture hall before sitting down to listen to Ray Kelly deliver his speech on stop-and-frisk, a de facto form of racial-profiling implemented by the NYPD in an attempt to drive down crime rates during Kelly’s tenure as Police Commissioner. But the heavy presence of the Providence Police in the first row of the auditorium elicited an irrepressible reaction from the protestors. As reported by the Brown Daily Herald, “When Kelly himself took the stage, protesters’ boos mixed with applause. As soon as he began to speak, many protesters stood with their fists in the air and began shouting in unison, after which [administrators]… could not regain control of the auditorium.” After thirty minutes, the speech was cancelled. Kelly had been effectively shouted down.
The events of October 30, 2013, unleashed an impassioned and timeless debate about the boundaries of academic freedom at Brown University and other institutions across the United States. In fact, the Ray Kelly incident was the first in a series of academic freedom cases to sweep the nation. Protests at Reed College, Yale University, and Middlebury College followed in rapid succession, subjecting the principle of academic freedom to the crucible of public scrutiny and student unrest. More recently, a “raucous” protest at Beloit College in March 2019 led to the cancellation of a speech by Trump associate, Erik Prince; and the administrators of Middlebury College cancelled a talk by the conservative Polish politician, Ryszard Legutko, to avoid student protests like the ones that had roiled campus in March 2017.
The questions that surround academic freedom are often nebulous and unsettled: How do we draw the line between speech that is “controversial” and speech that is “harmful?” Should students’ comfort be prioritized over engagement with tough, sometimes troubling ideas? Is disruptive protest ever acceptable? The contentious and uncertain nature of these questions captures the spirit of the University as a place of free and unfettered inquiry. Regardless of how we choose to answer these questions, the persistence of episodes that shut down controversial speakers is particularly troubling in this time of intense political polarization in the United States.
When political polarization is similarly mirrored in the reticence of university students to engage in uncomfortable and intellectually-stimulating debates in accordance with the norms of polite institutional discourse, it heightens partisanship within the political system. If universities do not train our future politicians and legislators to engage with people of different minds through the give-and-take of genuine intellectual debate, rather than defaulting to partisan credos, American society will continue to be caught in a vicious cycle of political polarization.
When The Coddling of the American Mind was first published in The Atlantic in September 2015, it made a bold observation: “Something strange is happening in America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might give discomfort or offense.” In the 2018 best-selling book of the same name, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt identify a number of social trends that have prompted students to become increasingly averse to controversial ideas. While The Coddling of the American Mind may exaggerate the scope of this new “culture of safetyism” among young adults, it is nevertheless an instructive analysis of an emerging phenomenon on college campuses–particularly when these campus conflicts are situated “within the context of America’s rapidly rising political polarization and dysfunction.”
Indeed, political polarization seems to be both a catalyst and a consequence of this impulse among students to eschew unpalatable ideas in the university setting. The Pew Research Center has tracked the growing partisan divide from the 1990s, and as political parties become more polarized, the number of campus conflicts has simultaneously increased. This makes sense: universities are theoretically centers for critical thinking. But the growing impulse to ascribe values to political parties makes students more likely to gravitate toward traditional party positions rather than engage in the type of critical thought that would allow them to arrive at these positions on their own. As value assumptions begin to replace critical thought, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, “It’s not hard to imagine why students arriving on campus today might be more desirous of protection and more hostile toward ideological opponents than in generations past. This hostility, and the self-righteousness fueled by strong partisan emotions, can be expected to add force to any moral crusade… [and] interfere with our ability to think critically.” When campus conflicts shut down controversial speech, universities are no longer places of critical thought and free inquiry.
The importance of freedom of speech and inquiry is perhaps best captured in John Stuart Mill’s 1859 treatise On Liberty. Mill argues that to silence another’s opinion is “to assume our own infallibility,” and that, moreover, “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.” Indeed, it is in the marketplace of free ideas that truth prevails. But this requires that we first hear both sides of any argument. Ruth Simmons, the former President of Brown University, eloquently reflected this sentiment in her Convocation Address for the 2001-2002 school year:
“Over the centuries, freedom of speech has overturned tyranny, led new populations of learners to the academy, discredited erroneous and biased scholarship disguised as factual and objective knowledge, and opened new fields and approaches. The protection of speech that is offensive or insulting to us is one of the most difficult things that we do. But it is this same freedom that protects us when we are in turn powerless. It is easy enough to exist in a realm where everyone is likeminded and speaks only of unimportant matters. That’s easy. While comfort may be found in silence, truth cannot dwell there… We will not stop hoping that men and women will rise above gratuitously specious utterances, but even if they do not, we must fight with all the force within us to preserve their right to be heard even as we work hard to expose the error of their logic. This thing, bitter as it is, is the nectar of our republic and the basis of university life. To learn in this place is to submit to the tyranny and discomfort of this freedom. I believe that learning at its best is the antithesis of comfort.”
Ruth Simmons captures something vital about the purpose of a university: it is a place for grappling with tough, confounding, and sometimes repugnant ideas in the process of refining your own arguments and understanding the viewpoints of others. “Universities are quarrelsome places. They’re supposed to be,” says Professor Luther Spoehr of Brown’s History Department, “If people go around tip-toeing, education is being inhibited.”
This is the heart of the matter: If students are groomed to be amenable only to sympathetic viewpoints, they are unequipped to grapple with a world full of opposing ideas in the professional and political arenas. Universities are doing their students a disservice if they cater to the tyranny of the majority. If political polarization in the United States is to give way to productive, bipartisan partnerships, universities must remain centers of cultural and intellectual debate by presenting both sides of the argument by encouraging students to engage with ideas with which they disagree.
Yet, to argue simply that universities must promote free inquiry and free expression is to ignore the historical context in which American social movements are fundamentally embedded.
In the aftermath of the Ray Kelly incident, Brown President Christina Paxson characterized the event as a “sad day for the Brown community,” clearly standing in favor of free expression. “Nothing is more antithetical to [the value of free expression] than preventing someone from speaking and other members of the community from hearing that speech and challenging it vigorously in a robust yet civil manner,” she wrote in an email to the Brown community. In the same email, she also drew a clear line with respect to protest: “Protest is welcome, but protest that infringes on the rights of others is simply unacceptable.” At a New York Times Forum nearly five years later, Paxon echoed this same sentiment, that “protest is a necessary and acceptable means of expression, but universities must ensure that it does not obstruct the basic exchange of ideas.”
The truth is that this balance between the norms of polite, institutional debate and the objectives of disruptive student protest is often irreconcilable. There are times when the norms of robust, civil debate are not adequate mechanisms for transforming unjust equilibriums. Disruptive protest is by its very definition an attempt to circumvent these norms to achieve social change.
As Professor Naoko Shibusawa wrote in the Brown Daily Herald following the event, “every movement toward social justice in U.S. history has included ‘misbehavior.’” From the Boston Tea Party to the Civil Rights Movement, civil disobedience has been a fundamental catalyst of social justice in the United States. And indeed, the diversity initiatives that emerged from the Brown administration in the years following the Kelly incident were at least indirectly related to the discussion the Kelly protest had sparked.
This begs the question: Did the means justify the ends? Could this disruptive protest be vindicated by the progress it achieved? No one speaks more eloquently of civil disobedience than Henry David Thoreau when he says, “If [the machine of government] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” Thoreau seems to suggest that it is, in fact, one’s moral duty to counter the norms of civil society which perpetuate systems of injustice. The very act of participating in these institutional norms of civility may be construed as an affirmation of the unequal status quo.
In this sense, considerations of justice muddy debates about academic freedom: Are there times when it is appropriate, if not necessary, to circumvent the norms of institutional debate to achieve substantive social change? Are there times when students’ discomfort warrants their ability to shout down a speaker? Or are the norms of academic debate so integral to an education rooted in critical thought that they should be regarded as absolute?
These are normative questions, caught up in systems of values and politics, that lead to controversial and inconsistent answers. And indeed, academic freedom means many things to many people. For some, it is the principles enshrined in the AAUP’s 1915 statement protecting professors’ right to teach and students’ right to listen; for others, it is a norm of polite institutional discourse; and yet for others, academic freedom is a value that must be weighed against other priorities, such as racial justice and gender equity.
Academic freedom can never be regarded in absolute terms, but certainly universities ought to be places that provoke critical thought by exposing students to controversial ideas. It is not the university’s place to hand Socrates his hemlock or to demand Galileo’s recantation. “The heresies of yesterday are often the orthodoxies of today.” Eppur si muove. “It is better to err on the side of toleration than proscription.” Centuries of scholarship have taught us that even the “gadflies” of society have something to contribute.
Certainly, Ray Kelly is no Galileo. Far from it. But if we allow our universities to eschew speech that students find reprehensible, at best we risk producing a society in which even our most educated citizens are unable to engage with people from across the aisle. At worst, our intolerance blinds us to new insights, leading to the buildup of a deeply polarized political system. If the United States is to have even a sliver of a chance of remedying our “broken” political system, that change needs to begin with our universities.
Photo: The Death of Socrates