Columns

Nick Werle ’10: Think, before you (invite someone to) speak

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, April 20, 2009

When John Yoo, the author of the Bush Administration’s infamous “torture memos,” came to Brown in February, he was welcomed as an honored guest. Yoo, who served as an attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003, came to campus in order to debate the existence of universal human rights with Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

As anticipated, there were some protesters on the Main Green as students filed into Salomon 101 for the talk, but fewer than many people expected. By most accounts, the event, sponsored by the Political Theory Project’s Janus Forum lecture series, was a success.

I guess the University got its money’s worth. As is customary, the Political Theory Project paid appearance fees to both speakers. Though he could not recall the exact amount spent to bring Yoo to campus, Associate Professor of Political Science and Political Theory Project Director John Tomasi told me his group usually pays Janus speakers about $5,000.

The image of John Yoo, a man currently unable to legally enter Spain due to a pending war crimes investigation, cashing a Brown University check disgusts me. I want to be clear: It’s not that I object to Yoo’s mere presence on campus, though Brown did legitimize him by inviting him to the debate; it’s that I object to the Political Theory Project paying him with University money. The fact that Brown paid a man who is directly responsible for some of the most morally repugnant actions in our nation’s history does not, I think, reflect well on our community.

Of course, the issue is complex. It’s both healthy and necessary for the University to host controversial people airing unwelcome opinions on contentious issues. There are compelling reasons to hear Yoo out, and it is crucial that the nation honestly come to terms with his reprehensible actions. As a largely progressive institution with a politically aware student body, Brown is well-suited to host such a debate.

More broadly, it’s important to bring speakers whose positions conflict with the majority opinion on campus. A number of influential conservatives have visited Brown in the last few years including Former Penn. Senator Rick Santorum, Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Bjorn Lomborg and Former UN Ambassador John Bolton. I think their lectures were valuable additions to campus political discourse, even though I disagree with their positions.

And though I’m not terribly excited about helping fund Santorum’s family vacations, I don’t have the same moral objections to his lecture that I do in the case of Yoo. Like all moral issues, it’s difficult to establish a clear and universally applicable standard for whom it’s acceptable to pay to speak on campus.

Yet I feel strongly that wherever one might choose to draw that line, Yoo is on the far side of it. Torture is a serious matter; American interrogation policy was used to justify and then cover up flagrant abuses of human rights that violated both international and domestic law. And through it all Yoo was neither an innocent bystander nor an academic writing journal articles in support of someone else’s policy. He wasn’t even a legislator debating this from a distance. The legal framework for torture was written on this man’s desk. He is not complicit. He is responsible.

So what exactly was Brown paying for? The Political Theory Project invited Yoo to speak because the Janus Forum steering committee, which is composed of student representatives from various campus political groups, must have believed that he could best advocate for the continued use of “enhanced interrogation.” Yoo is profiting off his experience in the OLC, which is unique precisely because he created these policies allowing torture. Had he been something other than a rubber stamp for the vice president’s office, he certainly wouldn’t be invited to speak about human rights. Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen Jack Goldsmith on campus.

By virtue of its privileged position in our campus’ political discourse, the Political Theory Project must be more reflective when choosing whom to invite.  Guided by an ambition to invigorate campus discourse and backed by millions of dollars from right-leaning think tanks (including the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship) and wealthy individuals (led by the University’s Chancellor, Thomas Tisch ’76), the Janus Forum will continue to host some of Brown’s most controversial speakers. Together, the Janus Forum Steering Committee and Tomasi should be careful to think about how they use their substantial resources to avoid forking over large amounts of cash to people who are objectionable not for their views or voices, but for their actions.

Nick Werle ’10 is a physics and modern critical philosophy concentrator from Port Washington, New York.