University News

Janus Forum holds student conversation on protest

Organizers said they aimed to spark productive discussion about free speech at Brown

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, November 22, 2013

Students gathered yesterday at a talk organized by the Janus Forum to discuss the issues of free speech raised by the protest and eventual cancellation of a planned lecture by New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly Oct. 29.

Supporters and organizers of the protest, who hosted the event with the Janus Forum, shared their views of the protest over the first 20 minutes, followed by nearly two hours of discussion among audience members.

The event was organized for students to talk without the influence of the administration, as well as to give the protest’s supporters an opportunity to talk without being put on the defensive, said Alexander Friedland ’15, director of the Janus Fellows.

The tone of the event was meant to be “constructive and respectful,” said Dana Schwartz ’15, a Janus fellow and the event’s moderator. No chanting, applauding or booing was permitted, though students were allowed to snap their fingers, Friedland told the audience at the beginning of the talk.

Immediately after the protest, members of the Janus Forum felt the group should put out a statement condemning the protesters’ actions as a violation of free speech, Friedland said. After speaking with John Tomasi, director of the Political Theory Project and professor of political science and philosophy, and among themselves, the group reconsidered. After more discussion, members decided it was not such a “cut-and-dry issue” and agreed not to issue any statement, Friedland said.

The design of the event was unconventional for the Janus Forum, which usually arranges for two speakers on different sides of an issue to share their arguments and then respond to audience members’ questions. The protest’s supporters were allowed to speak without an opposing speaker, both because there was no organized opposition to the protest and because the forum hoped to draw a variety of viewpoints from audience members, Friedland said.

It was a coincidence that the event was held in List Art Center, the same room where the Kelly lecture was shut down, Schwartz said.

Irene Rojas-Carroll ’15, Sean Luna McAdams ’14 and Floripa Olguin ’16, who all identified as supporters of the protest, spoke about the context behind the protesters’ actions and explained their perspectives on issues of race and free speech.

In the week before Kelly’s lecture, protesters sent a petition to the administration requesting that the lecture be canceled, that the money from the honorarium be donated to organizations committed to combating racially biased police actions — though group members do not know the dollar amount of the endowed lecture — and that the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, which invited Kelly, become more transparent about its selection of speakers, Rojas-Carroll said.

There was an “unwillingness to understand” on the part of the administration, McAdams said during the talk. Though he admitted the students had violated the Code of Student Conduct by interrupting the lecture, McAdams added that protesters’ concerns were not viewed as valid by the administration and protesters were told “to sit down and shut up” during the event.

Olguin spoke at the Janus event about the University’s role within the Providence community, saying “we are only visitors” in the area and need to respect the community members who participated in the protest.

“This is not a bubble. We are an example,” Olguin said.

In the discussion period that followed the supporters’ opening remarks, audience members questioned the validity of shutting down the protest, the appropriateness of inviting Kelly as an endowed speaker, whether students of color can be heard at Brown and the efficacy of the protesters’ actions.

Kelly has “a platform all day every day,” said Rojas-Carroll when asked by an audience member why the protesters did not believe an opportunity had been missed. There were many snaps from audience members in response.

Many students also asked the protesters to clarify how people felt unsafe due to Kelly’s presence on campus.

Students did feel “physically unsafe” by Kelly’s presence, which demonstrates “the disconnect” between people who have and those who have not experienced racial profiling, said Justice Gaines ’16, an audience member who supported the protest.

When asked by an audience member to respond to the swastikas drawn on posters condemning Kelly’s lecture, McAdams said he had no part of that action and did not approve of it.

Anthony Bogues, professor of Africana studies and chair of the Committee on the Events of October 29, told The Herald that the committee has met once to begin the first part of its work, which is to assess the circumstances surrounding the protest and “give an account of what happened.”

Though no members of the committee planned to attend the Janus talk, it is important for the committee to allow students to have their own conversation, Bogues said.

The committee anticipates releasing its first report  — on both the events leading up to the lecture and the talk itself —  by the end of winter break, Bogues said. He added that students will not be named in the report and that during this portion of the committee’s work, it will not “gather evidence for any action” on the part of the administration.

The Janus Forum is considering hosting an event to debate the stop-and-frisk policy, which would be separate from the conversation surrounding the Kelly lecture, Friedland said. The controversy about the protest diverted the conversation away from the policy and focused it on free speech, he said. But, the policy discussion remains important, he added.

Gaines said he was pleased people came to the forum and felt that more such events should happen on campus. He added that he thought more should be done to examine what role the administration played in “polarizing the campus” following the lecture.

Josue Crowther ’15, who participated in the protest, said he hopes the conversations about “perspectives of oppression” and discussions about race on campus continue to happen. The University needs to continue to have “an equal exchange of ideas,” and there were people in the audience who did not fully understand how to talk about these issues, Crowther said.

Camila Bustos ’16, an audience member, thought the Janus event was “a productive conversation,” but she was disappointed because there was no reconciliation between the “two dialogues.” She said she was also disappointed by the students who coughed when speakers expressed viewpoints they disagreed with. But she appreciated the event was held “by students, for students,” she added.

The intention of the event was not to come to a“consensus” but rather to allow students to encounter a “wide range of opinions” and probably leave “more confused,” Friedland said.

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