Columns

Rosenbloom ’13: A renewed commitment to individual rights

By
Opinions Columnist
Sunday, November 13, 2011

As Brown begins the search for its next president, it is important that we choose a candidate who values students’ rights of due process and freedom of speech. Unfortunately, over the last decade, the Brown campus has become hostile to these individual rights. Administrative decisions, student actions and official University policy have all sought to undermine these most basic American rights.

The handling of the William McCormick case proves that the student discipline system is fundamentally flawed and unjust for students accused of heinous behavior. In 2006, McCormick, a first-year, was accused of rape by another first-year student. Regardless of McCormick’s guilt or innocence, Brown’s disciplinary system did not treat him with justice or fairness.

Instead of using a fair trial or disciplinary hearing to determine the truth of the claim, Brown kicked McCormick off campus and provided him with a plane ticket home. McCormick has filed suit against the University, the accuser and the accuser’s father, and the University continues to claim it did nothing wrong.

The apparent mishandling of the McCormick case was not due to one minor error of judicial procedure. Instead, the University allegedly violated basic principles of due process and fair justice at every stage of the investigation. According to McCormick, the University and his accusor are guilty of a handful of serious violations of due process. Among them are withholding evidence, threatening criminal charges to force a confession, failing to contact police about an accusation of sexual assault and tampering by an influential donor that compromised the administration’s neutrality.

This bungling of the McCormick case cannot be blamed solely on the individuals who perpetrated these acts of injustice. Official University policy also contributed to continued disregard for the fair administration of justice.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Brown has the lowest standard of protection for students accused of sexual assault among the top 100 colleges and universities in the United States. All it takes for a student at Brown to be convicted of sexual assault is a “reasonable basis.” New federal policy mandates conviction on the grounds of a “preponderance of evidence.” This is a low burden of proof, yet it is still significantly higher than Brown’s. Policies like Brown’s strongly favor the accusers and ensure that the accused will not be given a fair trial.

To guarantee the fair administration of justice at Brown, a new president will have to take two steps: Change current campus policies that undermine due process, and ensure that University officials respect due process as they investigate criminal actions. Unfortunately, this new president will also inherit a campus culture that does not promote another key individual right: free speech.

While senior administrators and official policy are to blame for our campus’s hostility toward due process, students are to blame for creating a campus culture that does not protect free speech. It is a tragic truth that students themselves have become the greatest threat to free expression on Brown’s campus.

No one inspires acts of censorship at Brown more than David Horowitz. Last year, Horowitz ran a controversial ad in The Herald about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The next day, a handful of students wrote letters to the editor that questioned The Herald’s right to run the advertisement. Criticizing an ad’s content is a noble exercise in free speech, but criticizing a paper’s right to run an ad is a deplorable attempt at censorship. Similarly, in 2001, Brown students undermined free expression when they stole copies of The Herald in response to another controversial Horowitz ad.  

Stifling speech and preventing the free exchange of ideas used to be the province of school administrators and repressive governments. It is therefore tragic that Brown students have begun to embrace this anti-American practice of censorship. Last February, students tore down a banner on Wayland Arch that read, “Corporate criminals run Brown.” Students for a Democratic Society put this banner up, and they claimed that there were other instances in which students tore down their banners rather than resorting to more civil modes of disagreement.

Historically, free inquiry has been one of the defining principles of universities. Recent history at Brown suggests that we have forgotten this fundamental value. It is vital that our next president not only make a stated commitment to upholding free speech rights on campus, but also take active steps to instill a deeper respect for free expression.

University presidents have the power to shape the culture of their institutions. Selecting a new president gives us an opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves to upholding individual rights on our campus. I urge the Presidential Search Committee members to place a high value on a candidate’s views on individual rights in the evaluation process.

Oliver Rosenbloom ’13 is a history concentrator from Mill Valley, Calif.

He can be contacted at oliver_rosenbloom@brown.edu.