Op-eds

Cheit, Josephson, Loury, Miller ’70 P’02, Spoehr: Free expression matters

By , , , and
Op-Ed Contributors
Thursday, October 15, 2015

Something is missing from the fine words spun by President Christina Paxson P’19, Provost Richard Locke P’17 and Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06 in recent days about the need for discussions on power, privilege, responsibility, feelings and community expectations. Something big. Sadly, what the administration has refused to articulate is the core value of this or any other university: free expression. Their refusal stands in stark contrast to the response of another university faced by a nearly identical set of demands for suppression and self-censorship of unpopular ideas.

Instead, the administration has accepted the claim that certain forms of free expression, including opinions columns in a campus newspaper, may cause “harm” to our students. Because we wish to protect the University community from “harm,” it therefore becomes acceptable, according to the president, provost and executive vice president, to demand that The Herald admit it made a mistake in publishing controversial opinions. In the future, according to the administration, The Herald must “live up to the expectations of the Brown community.” In clear English, the administration wants the student editors of The Herald to suppress all opinions pieces that could be deemed offensive by some members of the University community. By stifling such opinions, they hope, the University will affirm its “intrinsic, bedrock commitment to social justice and equity.” What it will actually confirm is its own timidity and cowardice in the face of voices for censorship and the suppression of ideas.

Only a month ago, the student newspaper at Wesleyan University published an opinions column challenging the Black Lives Matter movement. Some students reacted to the column immediately, charging that it had harmed students of color and claiming that the newspaper had neglected “to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color.” How did Wesleyan’s administration respond? The president, provost and vice president for equity and inclusion penned a letter entitled “Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech” that included this powerful statement: “Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.”

We strongly support the rights of all who have criticized controversial opinions pieces published by the Wesleyan Argus and The Herald. We hope that they will continue to express their critical opinions and take issue with the controversial views contained in those columns. But we reject the attempt to frame free expression with which one disagrees as “harm” or to claim that speech that some may find offensive must be censored. At stake are the soul and character of a liberal and open university. We expect the administration to stand up for free expression whenever it is challenged. To date they have failed to do so.

Ross Cheit is a professor of international and public affairs and of political science. David Josephson is a professor of music. Glenn Loury is a professor of the social sciences and of economics. Kenneth Miller ’70 P’02 is a professor of biology. Luther Spoehr is a senior lecturer in education.

  • Brunonian

    Damn straight

  • Class of 1980-something

    Heroic stand, Ross, David, Glenn, Ken, and Luther. I used to take Twitter feeds from various Brown hashtags (mainly sports), but it’s been impossible to do that for the past year and a half or so, because the Tweetstream is gummed up with national outrage at Brown over “safe spaces” and other newsmaking episodes of totalitarianism. And not all the derisory tweeting is in response to Fox News alerts. A lot of it is from liberals, libertarians, and academics who are appalled at what Brown has become. The institution of tenure, and the free speech it protects, is often cited ironically. At the post-Kelly campus meeting, a professor of Africana Studies, whose academic freedom is protected by tenure, spoke against free expression in a university setting. I have slowly come round to a view that saddens me. Brown is so dominated by the half-bright thinking of its present second-tier, victimhood-dependent undergraduates that an explanation suggests itself. In the 1980s and 1990s Brown was in the top tier applicant pool, the very top tier. Invited speakers, like David Brooks and Dave Eggers, often mention their Brown rejection as hurtful. Even Matt Damon revealed recently, on the occasion of Ben Affleck’s honorary degree, that he, Damon, had wanted Brown but had been rejected. The best future journalists, novelists, filmmakers used to want to go to Brown. Various selectivity studies produced in the 1990s by the NCBER and others showed where Brown stood in the pecking order. (See the New York Times, Sept. 17, 2006, “Predicting Student Choices”, which published a data from the late 1990s.) Brown took 65 percent of common admits with Penn, 56 percent of common admits with Columbia, 61 percent of common admits with Dartmouth, 78 percent of common admits with Duke, 85 percent of common admits with Northwestern, and so forth. Not any more. The split with Penn and Columbia has turned badly in the other direction. Chicago has raced past us. WashU, Vanderbilt, and Northwestern now beat us regionally. Brown is now a back-up, a second or third (or even fourth) choice destination. So Brown Admissions has had to go niche. We now heavily recruit first-gen neighborhood activists in the realization that the David Brookses and Matt Damons and Dave Eggerses will deselect us in April. And the niche applicant pool that does arrive at Brown carries on in its reflexive victimhood, shouting down speech that it doesn’t like or can’t understand or can’t parse with philosophical clear-headedness. Welcome to the second tier, Brown. If you advertise for them, they will come.

    • dissatisfiedalum

      whoa, whoa, check yourself before you wreck yourself.

      “Brown carries on in its reflexive victimhood, shouting down speech that it doesn’t like or can’t understand or can’t parse with philosophical clear-headedness. Welcome to the second tier, Brown.”

      what you are insinuating is that students of color can’t think clearly, they can’t understand or can’t parse arguments that have literally been at the foundation of the disenfranchisement of people of color in this country since its start.

      Again, before making such blanket statements, check yourself, before you wreck yourself on the rocks of your own assumptions.

      • Class of 1980-something

        Nice mis-quote. You’re Exhibit A. You lopped off the eight words that preceded “Brown.” And I don’t insinuate. I assert explicitly. The university you are trying to create is the antithesis of a university and you don’t even know it. The “conversation about race” you no doubt claim you want to have is no conversation at all. It’s a a monologue. Nobody else gets to talk. You need to listen for a change. And I’ve got just the man for you to listen to. Go to Professor Loury’s office hours and try speaking a sentence or two of your rote jargon to him. He’s one of America’s great black academics, he was the first black tenured professor of economics in the history of Harvard, and he will clean your clock, dialectically, intellectually, and morally.

        • Man with Axe

          Didn’t you know that by definition anyone who disagrees with a black undergraduate is a racist?

      • amigo

        obviously, they cannot

  • James

    Thank you.

  • Guest

    Couldn’t agree more. People are allowed to say what they think, and other people are allowed to disagree. Free speech is a right to be treasured, not suppressed. While free speech may be hurtful (not that anyone ever worried about the mean and hateful things people said directly to me when I was a fat kid with glasses), it is still a right in this country. And especially on a college campus during the only time in a student’s life where they have the opportunity to be surrounded by such a wonderfully diverse group of students, staff, and faculty making impressions on each other every day. Free speech encourages critical thinking and helps to develop those skills, among others. Don’t be insulted – just come up with a better argument to defeat the negative free speech with which you disagree.

  • Brown Alumni ’15

    While I agree that in some cases, the demand for safe spaces is becoming extreme and is a complicated issue, for me this is about something else.

    This is about a publication that represents a populace of intelligent, cultured, and caring students publishing an article that factually and logically doesn’t even hold up to the first five seconds of scrutiny it receives. It perpetuates its ideology through ignorance rather than through concerted thought.

    If the article was a well-reasoned argument that questioned current opinions of race and white privilege, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I might disagree, but I would respect that it prompts debate and is the free expression of a person’s opinion. What I do have a problem with, is the BDH giving a platform to an argument that, in addition to perpetuating harmful systems of oppression, is also ill-founded, unsubstantiated, and downright poorly executed.

    When it comes down to it, editorial pieces of a newspaper reflect the opinions of those editors. It’s not as though the BDH was presented with this article and said, “Wow, this is an incredible argument and a provocative piece. In the interests of good journalism, we absolutely have to publish this.” The article went through multiple processes of oversight and approval to get published.

    By expressing outrage over the articles published by the BDH, people aren’t limiting the author or the newspaper’s free speech. They’re telling the BDH as a publication that they don’t approve of the arguments it is sponsoring. As a friend said recently on Facebook, “there’s a difference between disagreeing with a well-reasoned, thoughtful point of view and refusing to accept an argument that literally ignores history and upholds white supremacy”.

    If that’s not clear enough, this comic sums up my point pretty well:
    https://xkcd.com/1357/

    To put it in an academic context: Just because you can raise your hand during a debate in class and say the first thing that pops into your head, doesn’t mean you should. And if your argument is both oppressive in subject, and poorly thought out, you can be damn sure it’s going to get shot down.

    • ’15er

      Thank you for articulating my thoughts.

    • Cherven

      “the BDH giving a platform to an argument that, in addition to perpetuating harmful systems of oppression, is also ill- founded, unsubstantiated, and downright poorly executed”.

      Well, I applaud you for speaking your mind and sharing your opinions with us. Personally, I think differently. I’m inclined to agree more with Maier’s articles than with you. Calling current institutions “harmful” and “systems of oppression” are strong opinions, but opinions nonetheless. I don’t see it that way. I don’t think that current institutions are “systems of oppression”, and they certainly not “harmful”. There is a lot of freedom in this country, for those who choose to buy into them. The system only becomes “oppressive” when people resist, and “harmful” when people don’t stop resisting. Also, I read the articles numerous times and I found them to be well, substantiated (my own research on the web, on Google Scholar, and in the library brought up many sources that support the BDH author’s claims. The arguments were well- substantiated, and remarkably well articulated for a brief opinions piece.

      • EmotionalBrownStudent

        You say that “There is a lot of freedom in this country, for those who choose to buy into them. The system only becomes “oppressive” when people resist, and “harmful” when people don’t stop resisting. Also, I read the articles numerous times and I found them to be well, substantiated (my own research on the web, on Google Scholar, and in the library brought up many sources that support the BDH author’s claims. The arguments were well- substantiated, and remarkably well articulated for a brief opinions piece.”

        The problem is that for too long now, powerful people who have conveniently overlooked the real facts of history have been writing. These writings have found themselves sometimes on widely-read platforms such as BDH and a whole lot have been accepted into academia. That is the truth, not an opinion. If you looked for an article on the supremacy of the white race, you could probably find it. But that does not make it a fact.

        I for one am tired of reading nothing BUT this kind of history. I am tired of reading the history of my country and of my people from a white man’s perspective. So while I will never ask anyone to shut up for my sake, I please ask that they educate themselves, push their knowledge boundaries before the publish anything.

        • Cherven

          and what of these powerful people?

          Read “Guns Germs and Steel”, or “A Troublesome Inheritance” or, for that matter “The White Privilege of Cows” for clues as to why the powerful are powerful, and how they became that way. It is possible to write a *complete* history of mankind on earth (from our evolutionary timeline through the historic events, artworks, musics, and politics, of every culture), accounting for *all* the written and archeological evidence we have. The problem is, even in compiling such a complete and thorough document, it turns out that certain individuals, families, nationalities, cultures, races, and species have done better than others. This isn’t an issue of story, and this certainly isn’t a cultural relativist issue of “rational” “western” or “evidence- based” science being only one story afloat in a sea of equally valid stories. I implore you to do your own research, account for every piece of physical biological, archeological, artistic, and historical evidence there is, and put it all on a massive timeline. There really *is* nothing but this kind of history. This is the entirety of history. This is the entirety of biology. This is the entirety of humanity.

        • wilecoyote

          If you are tired of reading the history of [my] country from a white man’s perspective, then provide some evidence for your people’s independent invention of the pen, the stylus, the written language, and paper/ parchment, and write your own history. As long as the “white man” dominates, he will write history, for he is the one with the writing materials.

          • EmotionalBrownStudent

            The white man didn’t invent paper. Nor did he invent the written language (because there are more than one of these) But you are write, the white man does dominate what people read. But not forever. And certainly not now without criticism. We are awake. We shall write our own stories.

          • EmotionalBrownStudent

            right* 🙂

          • wilecoyote

            In case you are wondering, Eurasia encompasses most of the Old- World landmass, encompassing the modern geographical regions of Western, Northern, Southern, and Eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia, East Asia (China, Japan), South and Southeast Asia, India, the Caucasus, the Levant and Middle East, and Asia Minor (Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan).

          • wilecoyote

            By all means, do so. However give credit where credit is due. The Chinese invented paper, and the Mesopotamians invented the written language. There was a lot of contact and trade on the east/ west axis between Europe and Asia. The “white man”, no. The “Eurasian” man, absolutely. If you are not Eurasian, you write with their tools and speak with their languages. Give credit where credit is due.

          • EmotionalBrownStudent

            Ummm see this is the thing, you see it as if there is only “one written language”. How can you claim that the Mesopotamians created the written language when they are sevearl, none of them related to each other… Hieroglyphics date as far back as 2690 BC. Sumerian dates back to the 26th Century BC. Neither of those people were Eurasian as you claim. You should also give credit where it is due.

          • wilecoyote

            actually, both are Eurasian. Hieroglyphs from Egypt come from a Near East civilization, isolated from Europe by the mediterranean sea and from the rest of the African landmass by the Sahara desert, ever since the aridification of the Sahara 5900 years ago. Sumerian comes from the people of Sumer, located squarely in Mesopotamia. Both are Eurasian (the Asia in this case is Asia Minor; the Near East)

    • Man with Axe

      The comic you say sums up your point correctly points out that free speech, as a constitutional principle. does not compel anyone to read or listen to someone else’s opinions. But the point of this faculty letter is not the 1st amendment, but, rather, the role of a university as a place where ideas are debated.

      The very people who would say, as you do, that these opinions shouldn’t be given a platform, would cry the loudest if your own opinions were denied a platform. In fact, I keep hearing such cries as I read about marginalized people not having voices, etc. Shouldn’t a university throw it all out there and see what sticks in people’s minds? You know, people who agree with you won’t always be in power.

      • Adam

        Its not about the First Amendment, but rather about verity of advertisement. If Brown advertises itself as a school open to diverse people, opinions, and viewpoints, then that’s what I expect it to be. So far, Brown appears to be a case of very false advertising.

        • Man with Axe

          You got that right. That’s what’s going on all across American academe.

  • Brown2016

    Interesting that Ivy League Professor can’t sense the hypocrisy in their own argument. It seems obvious that in attempting to silence those who attempt to “censor” others one would be guilty of the exact same act that those they attack are guilty of. Members of the Brown community are just as free to “express” that they think articles should be removed, speakers should be shouted down, and that the BDH should not publish certain pieces as these professors are to write this article critiquing those people. The crux of this argument, that “the attempt to frame free expression with which one disagrees as ‘harm’ or to claim that speech that some may find offensive must be censored” is wrong may be a fair claim to make (though this commenter disagrees), but it seems in making this argument, these men are falling into their own trap. These professors merely find those who agree with the supposed “censorship” of certain problematic views to be doing some “harm,” and that these students, therefore, are themselves worthy of censorship. Because aren’t these professors trying to do away with any “harm” these sorts of ideas may cause their precious free exchange of ideas? In arguing against the free expression of those who have an idea (the idea that certain forms of speech should not be supported by Brown or Brown-run organizations), these professors are contradicting their own argument and are themselves doing harm to an environment conducive to the “free exchange of ideas.” Now this begs the question: Did any of these men think this argument through?

    Disappointed that this low-level, fallacious argument is the product of some of the (supposedly) brightest minds in this country. Perhaps these professors should stick to their respective subject matters. I did, after all, love the book Finding Darwin’s God. Dr. Miller should write more pieces like that and less like this.

    The argument within this article ends up with the result that the men who wrote it had no right to voice this opinion. It does, after all, seek to censor a group of people who disagree with them. So in the spirit of “free exchange of ideas,” here’s an idea I had: this article sucks.

    • Stop the garbage

      Nope, not hypocrisy and certainly not a fallacious argument. The fight against censorship is not an attempt to silence anyone. On the contrary, it is a fight for open discourse. These professors rightfully exercised their right to free speech in expressing a desire to end to censorship within a college community that is largely predicated upon a free exchange of ideas. Not once in their article did they call for silencing of those who disagreed with Maier’s articles, or even those who threaten free speech and believe that the articles were correctly removed. Free speech, ironically enough, certainly permits for individuals to express a desire to limit free speech. What it does not permit for is the actual removal that speech, which is precisely where the Herald went wrong. The removal of Maier’s article has certainly opened a discourse, as you can now see a multitude of responses from both sides. But the article should have remained to begin with, and its removal has not permitted for a totally free exchange of ideas. These professors are right to call out the error, and they are well within their rights to critique both the Herald and Paxson for not speaking out against this injustice. Your critique is simply false.

    • facepalm

      “Fighting against censorship is itself censorship” – That’s like saying bald is a hair color.

      The entire focus of the article is on protecting free speech, even for those whose ideas they disagree with. There’s no hypocrisy here – you’ve just grossly misunderstood everything they’ve said.

      • Cherven

        Agreed. The issue isn’t so much about who should or should not be shut down, but rather that dissenting opinions, expressed in a civil manner, have the right to stand on their own feet. Fighting against censorship is about simply letting a multitude of opinions stand

    • Class of 1980-something

      There is nothing hypocritical about asserting the inviolate importance of free speech at a university. Your dreadful turgid writing and brain-dead self-contradicting argument confirms the worst suspicions about what we’re up against. Get over yourself. Purge the rote jargon. Or go to Professor Loury’s office hours and try it on with him.

    • Brown Alum

      So you are saying that by arguing in favor of free speech, the Professors are guilty of censorship. Do you understand how illogical what you are saying it? Pointedly, they are arguing against silencing anyone.

      They are arguing – openly, in a public forum – that free speech should not be limited simply because it offends. Professor Loury is an expert on race relations. I am certain that he does not share the sentiment of the columns in reference. But he supports their right to expression, as well as his to rebut them.

      There are voices on campus who are arguing for the active silencing of speech simply because it offends. That is the definition of censorship.

      If the Professors were to embrace censorship, they would not make a statement in the BDH. They would have to either be calling for the BDH to completely silence those that support censorship, or they would themselves be engaging in the silencing of others. They are doing neither. If that were the case, yes, they would be hypocrites.

      However it seems that you completely misunderstand the difference between supporting free speech and supporting censorship.

    • Man with Axe

      “Now this begs the question: Did any of these men think this argument through?”

      I find it amusing in the extreme that a person such as yourself, who thinks he has identified an infinite regress where there isn’t one, has the temerity to criticize the thoughtfulness of men like Glenn Loury, when you yourself do not know the meaning of “begs the question.” Look it up.

  • dissatisfiedalum

    “We hope that they will continue to express their critical opinions and take issue with the controversial views contained in those columns.”

    It’s not that we disagree. We can all disagree about the weather, Tyra Banks post-Top Model plans, whatever. What rubs students of color the wrong way is that these stories are being published on the basis of pseudo-science evidence, and for the purpose of inflaming students on campus. Re-telling a history of genocide as one of exchange is a deeply violent abstraction that we have already done for centuries. Come on Brown, as an alum, I expect more of the same ‘critical’ thought that is missing from this piece. Let’s not forget the freedom of speech argument fueled much of the criticism around the Ray Kelly disaster in Fall 13. Have we learned nothing of years of dealing with these issues?

    • Amicus

      Really? pseudoscience? There was nothing pseudoscientific about either of the articles that were published. The animals and plants listed in the Columbian Exchange article *were* part of the Columbian Exchange, and there is a plethora of archeological and biological evidence to support human domestication and agriculture of different plants and animals, in different time periods, in different parts of the world. As for the link between human genetics and animal domestication, I direct your attention to this article: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/01/125-restless-genes/dobbs-text
      The arguments posed by both articles retracted from the Herald were falsifiable arguments. If you think that breathing the word “race” anywhere in proximity to the word “science” is the definition of pseudoscience, you’ve got another think coming.

    • student

      I guess not. People still stupidly want to censor things, and the issue quickly devolves into a battle over censorship. The issues never get discussed because the censors censor out their own topics! If students were mature enough to handle (i.e. brush off) offensive material, we would actually be having these conversations.

    • wilecoyote

      “what rubs students of color the wrong way is that these stories are being published on the basis of pseudo- science evidence, and for the purpose of inflaming students on campus”

      What happened to “question everything”, the bastion of the Liberal mindset? Who told you that the views expressed in the article are “pseudo- science”? How can you be so sure? Question everything, including your own assumptions and both what you agree with and what you disagree with.

      How can you possibly ascribe purpose to the articles? Are you some sort of mind- reader? If you mean that the views expressed in the articles were *different* than the views of the mainstream ultra- Left, and this is “inflammatory”, then please, grow up. If this is not what you mean, you will have to cite me an objectively “inflammatory” statement. Are there any racial slurs? curse words? fighting words? direct threats? none? well, where did you come up with “inflammatory”?

      You are making two deadly assumptions here; one, that the the evidence is pseudoscience, and two, that the purpose of the articles is inflammatory. Check your assumptions, and your evidence for said assumptions, before they bite you in the butt.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Protecting free speech from people using it is like hooking up for virginity. It just doesn’t work that way.
    You avoid rude people, you don’t excommunicate them from civil society and place them outside the protections of law an custom. You have that part of how to react to offensive speech totally wrong.

    Punishing people you disagree with is what ISIS does.

  • everyman

    The cries from the deaf and dumb ultra- Left
    “Freedom of Speech is oppression!”
    they pronounce with open mouths