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Academic Freedom on Trial at Brown University

Art by Klara Auerbach
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In 2013, Ray Kelly was invited to speak at Brown University. As a well-known proponent of stop-and-frisk, the NYPD Police Commissioner’s presence generated controversy on the university campus and ultimately resulted in Kelly being unable to speak. In the aftermath of the Kelly incident, Brown University has had the opportunity to examine academic freedom in the context of competing values.

In this episode of BPRadio, we use the Kelly incident as a launching-off point to examine differing perspectives on academic freedom, concepts of justice, and approaches to free inquiry and civil disobedience in the university setting.

Special Thanks to:

William Keach is a Professor Emeritus of English at Brown University. In 1983 he was given a Lindback Award for Excellence in Teaching at Rutgers, and in 1998 a Distinguished Scholar Award by the Keats-Shelley Association of America.

Ken Miller is a renowned biologist who attended Brown in the 1960s. He is currently a Professor of Biology and Royce Family Professor for Teaching Excellence at Brown University.

Naoko Shibusawa is a historian of U.S. political culture and teaches courses on U.S. empire. She is a Professor of History, American Studies, and Ethnic Studies at Brown University.

Luther Spoehr is a Senior Lecturer Emeritus at Brown University who specializes in the history of American higher education and school reform.


[Audio of singing from Sunrise Movement]

RACHEL: Last November, Brown students from the Sunrise Rhode Island coalition staged a protest at a talk hosted by Michael Steele and Tom Perez. 

RACHEL: They were protesting the Democratic National Committee, which recently decided to relax regulations against candidates who accepted donations from fossil fuel companies.

VOICEOVER: “What we are also seeing is failed political leadership. Our democratic leaders like Tom Perez, who will be speaking inside this building very soon, continue to put our futures on the line with each dollar of fossil fuel money they take.” 

MORGAN: At Brown, we have a rich legacy of student activism. Just this past year, we’ve witnessed a number of protests, including the Sunrise RI Movement and Brown Divest and Sanction.  [Pause.]

And I think it’s pretty fair to say: protest and advocacy are the lifeblood of any institution that is democratically run. They help to guide and shape organizational practice by bringing the institution’s values more in line with the people’s.  

RACHEL: I think you’re absolutely right, Morgan. BUT if you look at protest in an academic setting, it collides with a concept called Academic Freedom in some pretty interesting ways. 

MORGAN: On today’s episode: What is academic freedom?

RACHEL: How does it intersect with free speech and student activism in a college setting? And is disruptive protest ever acceptable? 

Welcome to BPRadio.

From the Brown Political Review, I’m Rachel Lim. 

And I’m Morgan Awner. This is BPRadio.

MORGAN: So, we’re going to dive right in and talk about an incident that occurred at Brown in 2013. 

NEWS: “Ray Kelly, you can’t hide! We charge you with homicide!”

MORGAN: … which came to be known as the Ray Kelly incident. 

RACHEL: The story you’re about to hear comes from some Brown professors who were active on campus in 2013 and knew about the Ray Kelly event:

SPOEHR: Ray Kelly was the police commissioner of New York City, who had put into place what he called “proactive policing,” which included a policy called “stop and frisk.” That policy was very controversial from the beginning. It ended up being invalidated by the courts. Kelly and his supporters claimed that it was successful in reducing crime in New York City, and certainly crime in New York City did drop. Whether it was due to that was a whole other question. And so Kelly was invited to Brown to talk about proactive policing in general, and it was assumed stop and frisk in particular.

SPOEHR: Even before he came to campus, there was resistance to having him come.

MILLER: I knew Ray Kelly was coming to campus. There were posters around the university describing his talk. But there were even more posters that had photocopied the original and drawn a Hitler mustache on him or taken the words “Ray Kelly” and changed them to “Ray(cist) Kelly” because of the stop and frisk policy that he had initiated in New York City.

SPOEHR: When he got here, he was already the topic of considerable controversy. There had already been concessions made about how long he would talk. About how he would take questions. That kind of stuff. But when he got there and started to talk, there was disruption in the hall.

SHIBUSAWA: The people inside were going to interrupt the speech now, by standing up and saying instances in which they had been racially profiled. It didn’t unfold the way they wanted it to. The protestors felt like they were triggered. The first row was reserved for Providence Police. And that was really triggering for the students and community members because it was the Providence Police that had been doing these things, so they were kind of disturbed by that.

MILLER: Kelly never really got to speak. 

NEWS: All right, now we go to Providence, Rhode Island, where a group of protestors at Brown University made sure that NYC police commissioner was denied his own free speech zone.

MORGAN: One of the professors you just heard from, Luther Spoehr, teaches a class at Brown called Academic Freedom on Trial, and in his class, he does a case study on the Ray Kelly incident. And so he shared some of his thoughts with us on how Brown’s administration handled the event. 

SPOEHR: I read about it for the first time that night, when we all got the President’s email about it. My reaction to the cancelling of the talk was that it was really a bad day for Brown, and I was encouraged by the fact that President Paxon said that is was a sad day for Brown. And she seemed to take a pretty strong stand in favor of academic freedom.

RACHEL: Professor Spoehr is a scholar who has spent a great deal of time researching the history of American higher education, and in particular, this concept called academic freedom. 

MORGAN: At this point, it’s probably important to point out that academic freedom isn’t just an abstract idea. It’s actually a legitimate principle that was formally enshrined in the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 Declaration of Principles. 

SPOEHR: The idea was that you would not be able to have reliable reporting for the results of searches for truth if you weren’t confident that the people who were doing the research were actually saying what they found. 

So that, interestingly enough, became a very influential document, to the point where over the next decades it was adopted and supported individually by institutions like Brown.

RACHEL: To be clear, ‘academic freedom’ is a concept that is distinct from free speech, and each university can adapt its own norms and policies to uphold academic freedom in its own unique way. As Professor Spoehr says,  

SPOEHR: It is not the same thing as free speech. It is a very specific right that goes to faculty in regard to their teaching and research. But Brown has its own academic freedom statement that explicitly extends academic freedom to students. And students have a right to hear invited speakers on campus. So Ray Kelly’s academic freedom wasn’t violated. He didn’t come to campus with academic freedom as part of his baggage. But the right of the students and faculty that were in that audience to hear him was blatantly violated.  

MORGAN: In the aftermath of the Ray Kelly incident, President Paxon appointed a commission to investigate the event. Professor Spoehr explains some of his frustration with the report that resulted from the investigation: 

SPOEHR: It’s unfortunate that then the committee that was put together by the President basically consigned academic freedom to a footnote, referred to it as a notion, and then moved on to talk about how harmful certain kinds of speech on campus could be. 

RACHEL: As Professor Spoehr argues, the idea that certain types of speech can be considered harmful is problematic because it allows a university to shut down discourse rather than open it up. 

MORGAN: And once you start allowing certain types of speech to be classified as bad, who gets to decide what is harmful? 

SPOEHR: It’s the classic Plato question: Who will guard the guardians?

MORGAN: Nevertheless, the idea that certain speech should be considered harmful is actually a viewpoint that a lot of people buy into. 

RACHEL: Professor Ken Miller, who you heard from earlier in the episode, doesn’t agree. In fact, he wrote an article to explain why.  

“I wrote it the day after the Kelly incident.”

RACHEL: And our executive producer, Emily Skahill, came across this article in the Brown Daily Herald. She found his story so interesting that she decided to ask him about it. 

Emily: Yeah, so, Professor Miller was actually an undergraduate at Brown in the 1960s. And so, in his article “Facism and the open campus,” he talked about attending a speech at Brown by the founder of the American Neo-Nazi Party. And in his article, Professor Miller wrote that he was glad he had attended that speech. And so I was really intrigued — and I asked him, “Why was it so important that you attended that speech?” He gave a really interesting response. 

It was the Fall of 1966. It was my freshman year at Brown, and George Lincoln Rockwell had been invited to campus. Now, George Lincoln Rockwell was the leader of the American Nazi Party, and he was an outrageous figure. He was, in an interesting way, a superficially charming Nazi. And what I mean by that, is although he wore a classic stormtrooper uniform from time to time, with the leather strap across the chest, and a swastika armband, and so forth; and although he was often surrounded by a bodyguard of so-called stormtroopers, he was handsome, he was articulate.   

So needless to say, there was a lot of controversy when it was known that he was coming to campus, and there were groups on campus who pushed the university to dis-invite him. You have to appreciate something: this was only twenty one years after the end of World War II. We had faculty members — lots of them — on our campus who had fought against the Nazis in WWII. We had people whose relatives had perished in concentration camps. People who escaped concentration camps at the end of the war. Some of them lived in Providence and were only in their thirties or forties. So this was an immediate issue to them. The University persisted. The talk took place. It took place in the auditorium in Alumni Hall — basically a ballroom. And I and several of my freshman year friends – third floor Archibald house in case you were wondering – queued up to get in. It was a long line outside. And there were people from the Jewish Defense League and others picketing outside – the sixties were sort of a decade of picketing – and urging us not to go inside and telling us that this guy is a monster. And one of the things I remember is that one man, probably about 40-45 years old came up to a group of us and told us, “This guy is horrible, you don’t want to even hear his ideas.” And this guy rolled up his sleeve and there were numbers tattooed on his arm. And we knew very well what that meant, which is that he was a concentration camp survivor. So it was really powerful. It sent a chill down my spine.

 But we went inside anyway. And he started to speak, and he opened with a couple of jokes, and he got the whole auditorium laughing. And he tried to come across as benign. So, let me tell you for me, what was the most important — the reason I will always be happy I was there. And that is, I grew up, as I mentioned, in the immediate post-WWII generation. My father, all of my uncles fought in the war against Nazism. One of my uncles died in that war. Gave his life for the country. And one of the things I just could not understand — up to that point, I always thought Hitler was a monster, this nation became barbaric, did one of the worst things — they committed one of the worst crimes to millions of people over dozens of years in human history. And all this happened in Germany, which was arguably the best educated and the most cultured country in Europe. It was not as though this was an ignorant populous. I mean, these are the people of Schiller and Gutte and Beethoven. How could this happen? And the only depiction I had of Nazis was goose-stepping stormtroopers and Hitler shouting from the podium. That didn’t seem very persuasive to me. 

Then, when I heard George Lincoln Rockwell, I realized something. And this is what I wrote in the article, which is facism doesn’t come in screaming demands and shouting slogans. Facism enters a country with charm, with a wink, with a smile, waving the country’s flag, and claiming to be patriotic. And therefore, the message of facism is not something that you immediately recognize as horrible.

 I had gotten an education. And that education was not that facism was bad — I already knew that. It was not that Nazis were monsters — I already knew that. But what I understood for the first time was that facism could happen here. And that could only have come about by being exposed to those ideas, and that was one of the reasons I was always glad that I was there to hear George Lincoln Rockwell speak.

RACHEL: So, Emily, what did you take away from Professor Miller’s story? 

EMILY: I think, Rachel, that what I learned from that story, and I think what Professor Miller was getting at with his article, was that even the most abhorrent ideas can teach us something about the world we live in. And that perhaps the best way to actually combat the things that we find most reprehensible is to engage with and understand them. I think that in today’s polarized political environment, this message is a really salient one: As much as I abhor some of the policy positions that Trump and his supporters advocate, I have to at least attempt to understand their viewpoints in order to make more compelling arguments against them. When I talked with Professor Spoehr, this was a point that he strongly advocated. 

SPOEHR: President Ruth Simmons said famously when she arrived at Brown in 2001, universities are quarrelsome places. They’re supposed to be. That doesn’t mean they’re supposed to be mean and nasty. You try to avoid that whenever possible. But when people go around tip-toeing, afraid to say what’s really on their minds, education is being inhibited. (14:56-15:20). 

I try in my classes to make sure that the counterarguments are heard. That doesn’t mean I think every counter argument is just as good as the argument, but I think they need to be heard because it goes back to that classic statement by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, that if nobody else is going to challenge my argument, I need to challenge it myself, because the only way you know if it’s really good is if it’s tested. (17:01-17:29). 

MORGAN: Based on this reasoning, Professor Miller argues that it would have been better to engage with Kelly instead of shouting him down. 

MILLER: Subjecting Kelly to tough, reasoned questioning would have been a much better way to answer his actions with ideas rather than to answer basically by mob rule.

If we are to be a nurturing place for our students, something that allows our students to develop in a way to face the challenges of the real world, they have to encounter the contrary ideas that we hear out there. To go to a university where there is effectively a filter that filters out a large part of the political, economic and social ideas that you see in the real world is to leave you unprepared to deal with those when you actually confront them.

RACHEL: Perhaps this is what academic freedom is really about. To be the best advocate for your own point of view, you need to be able to know your opponent’s argument in its most authentic form, which means listening to the people that you disagree with most. In fact, it can be argued that universities are doing their students a disservice if they only cater to one type of viewpoint.

MORGAN: This is a message that can also be extended to all politicians and educated voters today: If political polarization in the United States is to give way to productive, bipartisan partnerships, people must be willing to engage with people who see things differently. And for this reason, universities must remain centers of cultural and intellectual debate if they are to produce students that will go out into the world and accomplish important things. 

RACHEL: So, what we have here is one side of a very complicated debate on academic freedom. 

MORGAN: What this perspective leaves out is the fact that this controversy did not pan out on a level playing field. The protestors who prevented Ray Kelly from speaking had been victimized by Kelly’s stop-and-frisk policy. For them, protest was a way to disrupt that power imbalance. 

RACHEL: In the days after the Kelly incident, Professor William Keach wrote an article in the Brown Daily Herald supporting the student protestors, so we called him up to learn more. 

One of his main take-aways from the Kelly event was that students have a right to protest. 

The kind of core of the debate that emerged out of there for me was to absolutely recognize the tradition of free debate, the importance of open dissent, and at the same time – I guess this was kind of the motivation for, impulse for, my intervening – say that there is also a tradition and a right to disruptive protest. I guess generally I feel that the recognition of a tradition of, and a right to disruptive protest is often, I feel, missing from discussions around the free expression, freedom of speech question. (2:50-3:42)

MORGAN: Professor Keach’s viewpoint isn’t to deny the importance of academic freedom, but rather to acknowledge that there are times when the norms of polite debate must give way to disruptive protest in the face of extreme injustice. 

KEACH: I just want to make clear, I’m not – with someone like the position Ken Miller is taking – I’m not arguing that the position he advocates or prioritizes isn’t important and valuable. I mean, I like polite, respectful discussion and debate as much as anyone else. I’m just saying there are occasions where the stakes of what is at issue are so dire and so immediately connected to forms of harm, including physical harm and violence, that a more interventionist and militant form of political behavior is justified. And you know, you can take this discussion all the way back to the Boston Tea Party, an instance during the American Revolution where public events, public forum were disrupted by people who felt that British imperialists was a violent intrusion on and into, and is a harm being done to them. 

MORGAN: Professor Keach makes a really good point. Disruptive protest is actually part of a long tradition in American history. It goes back to Henry David Thoreau’s quote that “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.”

RACHEL: Exactly – and this is precisely the point that Professor Shibusawa makes in an article that she wrote for the BDH in support of the protestors. 

Every sort of advancement toward democracy that this country has made was made through disobedience. Right? Every single one. Let’s just take civil rights. Right? Can you imagine what would have happened if there wasn’t civil disobedience? Nothing would have happened, right. So you had Eisenhower saying we’re not ready for racial equality or desegregation, but it was because of the ____ of those activists that disrupted the normal. That’s why. It’s people power that ends oppression.

MORGAN: But it’s more than that. 

SHIBUSAWA: When we say we don’t want to be political, that hides the fact that the status quo is also political.

MORGAN: In his letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King himself writes that injustice is often rooted in the status quo – and that it is sometimes necessary to break the law when it is found to be the source of injustice.

RACHEL: In response to people who criticized the protestors at the Ray Kelly event, Professor Shibusawa draws on King’s ideas by pointing out the ways in which racism remains embedded in society: 

SHUBUSAWA: But they’re not looking at the violence of the system that is exploitative and hurts people. Just because they’re not being hurt and they think its ok… They’re not thinking about the people who are being harmed. It’s not a neutral system. If they saw it in better context and actually cared that people are living in a system that seems to be polite, then maybe they would have different thoughts. Maybe… I would hope so, but I’m not quite sure.

MORGAN: So, by challenging the status quo, we are acknowledging that injustice exists and that something needs to change. 

RACHEL: It’s true. Disruptive protest actually catalyzed a number of diversity initiatives on Brown’s campus. Emily spoke with Professor Keach on this topic. 

KEACH: From my point of view, the Ray Kelly incident – not exclusive in and of itself – but the Ray Kelly incident and its immediate aftermath has played a role in the Brown diversity initiatives that have emerged over the past several years. Even though a lot of people in the Brown community disagreed with what the protestors had done, I think that disruptive protest made a contribution to opening up questions about racism and the empowerment of people of color to be heard and understood. 

EMILY: That’s actually – that’s a really interesting point, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I think what I’m hearing is kind of that in order to actually create a platform for diversity, and to be where we are today, you kind of have to almost circumvent that system. And had the Ray Kelly talk went on as normal, in a normal debate setting, we might not have even had that happen. 

KEACH: Yeah, I agree with the way you put it. You know, just to amplify it a little bit and in my own words: Even in a liberal institution like Brown, where the forums for social change – social and culture change – are substantial and well-developed, there are going to be moments where the deep-set conflicts in society as a whole are going to emerge with a degree of intensity and seriousness that can’t be contained or made to conform entirely within the culture of polite, university campus discourse. Instead, I’m in favor of a position that says sometimes there are going to be moments of conflict of that kind, and we have to work through them and learn from them. (22:52- 25:08)

MORGAN: So in some sense, perhaps the Ray Kelly incident unfolded exactly as it should have. 

RACHEL: Overall, there were people who viewed the Kelly incident as a small victory in an era of racially biased policing; and there were others who argued that shutting down the Kelly speech grossly violated academic norms of free inquiry and free expression. 

MORGAN: Regardless of what you believe about the events that transpired in 2013, it’s important that we grapple with these types of questions: Do we at Brown do enough to engage with the viewpoints we dislike? And at the same time, do we also do enough to stand up against injustice?

RACHEL: This has been an episode of BPRadio. Thanks for tuning in, and join us next time. 

About the Author

Emily Skahill '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Emily can be reached at