More than 600 students and multiple professors and administrators gathered Wednesday night in Alumnae Hall for an open forum addressing issues surrounding free speech and race on campus and the cancellation of New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s lecture Tuesday.
At the Tuesday event, students and community protestors shouted at Kelly when he took the podium, protesting his role in the New York Police Department’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policing policies. Kelly was repeatedly prevented from speaking, and administrators ended the event, hosted by the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, a half hour after it began.
President Christina Paxson invited the community to the forum via a campus-wide email sentWednesday afternoon. Administrators were surprised by the turnout and only expected about 100 to 200 attendees, Paxson said in opening remarks at the event.
Administrators stressed the importance of engaging in dialogue to confront controversial issues in the wake of the protest against Kelly’s lecture.
“Talking in person is always the best thing to do,” Paxson said at the forum, which drew a crowd that overflowed into the hallways outside Alumnae Hall.
Margaret Kluwann, vice president for campus life and student services, called for creating a respectful atmosphere during her remarks. “We have an important opportunity to listen to each other and to learn, and I hope that we can do that respectfully,” she said. “I ask you to challenge ideas, not another person.”
Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 told The Herald his hopes for the event before it began. “I hope we achieve understanding about how to tackle and discuss issues in an open and respectful and mindful way that makes me proud of Brown,” he said.
Tricia Rose, professor of Africana Studies and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, commended those who had raised concerns about Kelly’s lecture for their courage to “stand against the status quo.”
Rose also acknowledged the disappointment of students who had wanted the lecture to proceed in order to have the chance to engage with Kelly following his talk. “We can say we would like the format to be different, but not engage in a cannibalization of our own community in our conversation,” Rose said.
Jenny Li ’14, a leader of the protest, told forum attendees she was disappointed no media outlets had reported on the text of the statement protestors had recited at the lecture.
Li invited attendees to recite the group’s chant with her in a call-and-response format. “Asking tough questions is not enough,” she said. “Brown is complicit. We stand in solidarity with the Providence anti-racism movement, and all those impacted by racial profiling.”
Li said she and many other students felt emotionally “triggered” by Kelly’s presence, adding that protestors considered their shutdown of the talk a “win.”
Other forum speakers expressed their regret that the protest had forced the lecture to be canceled, saying the action challenged campus free speech.
“People wanted to hear this man answer questions,” said Ross Cheit, professor of political science and public policy at the Taubman Center. “I think it was a loss.”
Cheit highlighted the fact that the lecture was part of a series supported by the family of Noah Krieger ’93, who died shortly after graduating. Kreiger’s father had been interested in bringing a speaker to campus who would present a differing viewpoint from the liberal Democrats who had previously delivered many of the previous lectures.
It may be difficult for the University to bring controversial speakers to campus in the future, Cheit said, adding that “an invitation is not an endorsement” of an individual speaker’s positions or policies.
Middle East Studies Director Bashara Doumani stressed that students should appreciate the opportunity to speak freely in campus discussions in “a place in which (community members’) actions are producing a nation (they) want to live in.”
Amara Berry ’16 called for all community members to better listen to each other’s perspectives.
The speeches were followed by a breakout discussion session that included faculty members Paxson invited to help facilitate dialogue.
Administrators then invited discussion group members to share the content of their dialogues. Josette Souza ’14 volunteered to speak first, directing her comments at Paxson.
“Ray Kelly is a terrorist, and he’s terrorizing our communities,” Souza said. “Until you feel terrorism in your life, I don’t think you have the right to speak on this subject.”
Students’ comments throughout the forum were punctuated by snapping and applause.
Many students said they felt personally offended by Kelly’s presence and believed the University should not have invited him to campus.
“To those of you who don’t understand the emotion, what sort of invasion of your privacy or denial or patronizing and marginalization of your personhood could make your voice shake the way that mine is shaking right now?” said Ruby Fore ’17.
Will Furuyuma ’15 told Paxson he is concerned because she did not condemn Kelly’s stop-and-frisk policy in her campus-wide email sent before the forum.
Marion Orr, director of the Taubman Center, which sponsored Kelly’s lecture, expressed regret for the controversy.
“I sincerely apologize to my students,” Orr said. “Especially to my black students and Latino brothers and sisters — it wasn’t my intention to hurt you, and it hurts me to hear that my decision caused so much pain.”
Orr asked the students to submit a list of speakers whom they would not approve of coming to campus, adding that he never expected the intense reaction to Kelly’s event. Orr later wrote in an email to The Herald that notion was meant to point out that a list of speakers like this should not exist and to provoke thought about such a list’s implications.
“Ray Kelly’s position is not a marginal one,” said Viveka Hulyalkar ’15, adding that she wishes the lecture had gone forward. “Perception of legitimacy is … the reason we have to listen with him and engage with him.”
“For me, protesting Ray Kelly and shutting down his speech had nothing to do with ideas,” said Justice Gaines ’16, who helped organize the protest. “It had to do with the safety of my body on this campus,” he said, adding that he felt uncomfortable at Kelly’s scheduled lecture because the commissioner seemed to be “preaching” to several rows in List Art Center 120 — the auditorium in which the event took place — that Gaines said were reserved for police officers.
Tensions flared at the forum near its conclusion when a graduate student claimed he had just been involved in a confrontation with a Department of Public Safety officer when he had tried to enter Alumnae Hall.
Michael Sawyer GS said a DPS officer “cornered” him before the forum and asked him if he was affiliated with the University. Saywer said the officer told him he “didn’t look like a Brown University student.”
Deputy Chief of Police for DPS Paul Shanley told The Herald he could not confirm the interaction.
Discussion about the cancellation of Kelly’s lecture has drawn polarized responses from the student body on campus and through social media sites, including two rival Facebook-driven letter-writing campaigns — one in support of the University’s decision to invite Kelly and one in opposition to the lecture.
Zachary Ingber ’15, a Herald opinions columnist who co-launched a Facebook page asking students to write Paxson letters in support of Kelly’s right to talk at the University, said he created the page to counter letters written to Paxson in opposition.
“The problem with banning certain points of view is that it prevents others from responding,” Ingber said, adding that he wishes students had been given the opportunity to challenge Kelly on his position in a question-and-answer session following the planned lecture. As of press time, 83 people had joined the Facebook group calling for students to support the University’s decision to invite Kelly.
The rival page had garnered 190 members as of press time. Page organizers could not be reached for comment.
Irene Rojas-Carroll ’15, an organizer of the protest, said the letter-writing campaign was not officially affiliated with Tuesday’s protest, but she added that the page creators supported the protestors’ cause.
Many students approached Paxson after the event. Some thanked her for hosting the forum, while others called for her to take further action to make minority students feel safer on campus.
Paxson told attendees she plans to hold multiple dinners at the Sharpe Refectory where students can sign up to discuss issues with her. “The solution is to talk it out,” she said.
“Tonight showed that Brown has soul-searching to do on issues of race and class,” said Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science and public policy who attended the event.
In a previous version of this article, Director of the Taubman Center Marion Orr is reported to have asked students for a list of speakers they would not want to see on campus. Orr later clarified the statement was intended to imply such a list should not in fact exist and to provoke thought about such a list’s implications. The article also incorrectly reported Josette Souza ’14 said New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is “terrorizing our community.” In fact, Souza said Kelly is “terrorizing our communities.” The Herald regrets the error.