Letters to the Editor

Letter: Faculty, student groups free to invite speakers

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

To the Editor:

Nearly 50 years ago, in 1966, the Brown University faculty voted to establish the right of any faculty member or student group to invite any speaker of their choosing to campus. This new policy was affirmed by the Brown University Corporation, and it remains in effect today.

This policy change took place during a turbulent time in America. Memories of the McCarthy Era blacklists were still fresh, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing and opposition to the Vietnam War was mounting across the country, especially on university campuses.

The new policy represented a huge win for Brown students.  Previously, students had to gain the approval of the Brown administration to bring controversial speakers to campus.  Malcolm X’s visit to Brown in 1961 nearly didn’t happen: President Barnaby Keeney refused several student requests to invite him. He finally relented only on the grounds that no University funds be used to support the event. The new policy removed the administrative filter on who could be invited, paving the way for a much wider range of ideas to be presented and debated at Brown.

This year, some students have questioned whether there should be limits to this policy. They have argued that there are some people whose ideas are so hurtful to members of the community that they should not be invited to speak at Brown. This includes then-New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly and, more immediately, Sergeant Benjamin Anthony, a reservist in the Israeli Defense Forces, who is to speak at the Brown/RISD Hillel this evening.

The Hillel invitation to Sergeant Anthony differs from the invitation by the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions to Commissioner Kelly in one important respect: Hillel is an independent organization and its events are governed by Hillel policies, not University policies. However, the Hillel event has resurrected the important debate over “who can speak” at Brown. I hope members of our community pay attention to this debate.

As most members of the Brown community know, I strongly support the current policy that allows faculty members and student groups to invite anyone of their choosing to campus. I will continue to support and enforce this policy as long as I am Brown’s president. To backslide on this issue would be to condone censorship. It would have a chilling effect on the intellectual environment on campus and erode an important right that faculty members and students currently enjoy. I certainly do not want to revert to the old days, in which the approval of the Brown president was needed to invite a controversial speaker to campus. I would also oppose giving this power of approval to any other person or group on campus. Such a move would hurt the entire community. It could even come back to harm the very individuals who have objected to inviting Commissioner Kelly and Sergeant Anthony — by limiting their ability to bring speakers with opposing points of view to campus in the future.

What should members of our community do if someone whose views and actions are thought to be abhorrent is invited to speak on campus? Students have many options. One is to attend the talk (if it is open to the general population), listen and ask hard questions. Another is to boycott the talk. Yet another option is to protest. Protest has a long and proud history at Brown. Time and time again students have used it to express deeply felt beliefs about important social and political issues. Peaceful protest — which respects University policies and Rhode Island laws — is protected by the Brown Code of Student Conduct. I am proud of our students who exercise their right to peaceful protest and, as president of Brown, I will support this right with as much energy and zeal as I support the right of faculty members and students to invite anyone they want to speak at Brown.


Christina Paxson



  1. I support bringing controversial speakers to Brown, and I believe that these speakers are truly valuable for academic learning and for starting important discussions. However, I have a problem when a controversial speaker is invited and the discussion is closed off. I understand there are limits for audience capacity or that this speaker is coming with a purposeful discussion in mind, but I find it insulting that only individuals deemed “politically active” on this campus were invited. There should have been a way to distribute tickets/seats/etc in a fair manner to allow those of us who would like to listen and/or ask engaging and thoughtful questions (whether in support or not) a chance to.

    • This is a fair point, however the fact that this is a controversial speaker is irrelevant.

    • I agree with this point. And while I am not saying that I agree with the actions of the Hillel, I do think it is understandable. I would like to suggest (just a thought…) that the actions of the Hillel are understandable as a consequence of the Ray Kelly incident. As a private organization that pays to produce its events, the Hillel has a justifiable interest in protecting the proceedings of those events. In the wake of students’ demonstrating that they would be willing to compromise those proceedings, I think this campus should consider that the closed nature of this event (however inappropriate…) was just a consequence in the aftermath of the Ray Kelly protest. I believe that with some discussion the student population here could easily convince the Corporation that those specific actions would not be taken again, and that would decrease the incentive for organizations such as the Hillel to protect their events by making them private.

      I am not claiming for sure that this is the reason the event was private. It is just a thought.

  2. I’m actually pretty much on board with this statement.

    It is important to note that just because a group can invite a speaker, it doesn’t mean that they should.

  3. There will be a peaceful protest of both the decision to host a closed, invite-only event and to invite Sgt. Benjamin Anthony at 5:30 pm outside of Hillel, where the event is taking place. For everyone’s information, requests were made by various students both within and outside of Hillel to open the event or postpone it before students requested that it be cancelled or protested, all of which were denied. The protest is an expression of solidarity with individuals affected by the violence that is perpetuated by policy campaigns such as Anthony’s as well as a call for hosting speakers that work towards a peaceful solution, rather than advocating for the retrenchment and polarization of perspectives. It is not aimed at cancelling the event. Hillel retains the right to invite whomever it wants to campus, but it should seriously question what the objectives of such an event are and whether this kind of opaqueness and elitism is productive for the future.

    • I respect your right to protest based in the content of the event. However, there are invite only events that occur on campus all the time . A broad representation of various voices both within and outside of Hillel were invited and it would be my hope that these students attend and challenge the speaker if they so choose with difficult questions. Declining the invitation is a dismissal of the other point of view and a choice not to engage.

      • Not invites based on race/religion.

        • Thats not true. There are dinners honoring black women all the time that only black women are invited to. Ruth simmons was the keynote speakers a few years back

          • actual honesty says:

            The Black Women’s Appreciation Dinner (I’m assuming that’s what you’re referring to) is open to the entire Brown community. If you attended you would see that every year there are men and women of all races present.

          • Truth Smack Down says:

            Invites and an event being “open” are two different things. I’d venture to say the Hillel event in question only invited certain students in the same way how invites for Black Women’s Appreciation Dinner is also a targeted invite.

          • Black Womens Appreciation Dinner is/was open to all. You can’t use Brown facilities to discriminate. That’s what the Hillel is doing. And its illegal. There will be discrimination suits. Trust me.

          • No, there won’t be lawsuits unless some wingnut tries one. Sounds like that may be you. And it won’t win anyway because all of your accusations seem to be unfounded and wrong.

          • If u don’t know American law ones’ got to wonder what the hell kinda crap u publish /edit in that World Journal. But i guess better to talk like u got a donut in your mouth rather than face facts.

            All someone has to do is walk into the Brown EEO office and claim he/she was discriminated. That triggers a chain of events/actions. Even if Brown does not want to investigate, it has to. And submit that to the Feds. All based on a single anonymous complaint.

            Brown can’t let Hillel can’t use Brown resources, even for other events, unless it agrees to follow federal EEO laws. If you didn’t know that what the hell kinda crap do you know.

          • Can I just clarify that there seems to be another person using my name as a username? As I said before, I’m not willing to engage further in this forum, but you are welcome to email me.

          • Reva
            Sorry. I try not to be the first one to engage in mud slinging. But respond if done. That’s the nature of the business. Cool.

        • Were only Jewish students invited?

  4. double standards says:

    How is Hillel, a national organization associated with a rightwing political lobby in support of horrific militarism, able to operate on campus with so little transparency or accountability? And would the University response be the same if someone invited a speaker in support of a Palestinian militant group that engages in violent resistance against Israel’s brutal and illegal military occupation of the Palestinian Territories? I think we all know the answers to these questions but are afraid to speak publicly for fear of being labeled “anti-Semitic.”

    • This is another example of “religious” institutions (which are really political institutions) getting a free ride and being held to a different standard. The fact that religious institutions do not pay taxes is outrageous. Another “special interest” in our society, and sadly, at Brown. Can you imagine if a speaker who was opposed to Isreali foreign and military policies was invited to speak on campus as part of a “closed” event? Why is an event “closed” on a college campus?

      • Yes I can believe it. And I also believe the pro Israel crowd would not be as offensive in their rhetoric or approach and, likely, would not even try to shut down the discussion. I say this because it has happened at campuses all over the country, and while the pro Israel side protests, they do not generally aim to shut down the discussions. That said, they do attempt to open them up to debate, which I agree would have been good in this case… if security could be assured. After Ray Kelly and that craziness, I fully understand why Hillel would be less willing to open things up literally and figuratively.

        One other comment… The original poster above is wrong in the accusation of Hillel being right-wing. That was a close minded comment that says more about the poster than the post did itself.

  5. Hillel Is Breaking the Law or At Least What Brown claims to uphold.

    The Hillel is provided free access to Brown campus facilites on the premise that it follows all Civil Rights laws that Brown Administration claim to enforce. Then the Hillel turns around and restricts its facilities based on by targeting members of certain minority communities. That is purely racist.

    Would Brown provide the KKK access to its facilities ? No. Then how can the Administration claim to be enforcing the law by providing open access to an organization (the Hillel) that discriminates.

    • The situation you are describing is, of course, racist. Luckily,
      you’re not describing anything close to the reality at Brown RISD

      No Brown student, professor, or alum is barred from using Hillel facilities. Anyone can walk in and use its study spaces, library, computers, or bathroom. Or anything else in the building. Regardless of religious background. Furthermore, many people of a wide variety of perspectives (including leaders of Students for Justice in Palestine) were among the leaders who were invited to this event. They’re not Jewish. Many people who frequently come to Hillel (or even serve as Hillel leaders) are not Jewish.

      Your premise only holds if all campus events that are invitation-only are discriminatory. If the Brown Dems board hosts a get-together for only its 10 board members, is that discriminatory? If the Third World Center hosts an event where only international students are invited is that wrong? Unless you’re ready to say that any and all events at Brown that the whole campus isn’t informed about are discriminatory, I just don’t understand your argument.

      By the way, I say all this as someone who fiercely disagrees with Sergeant Anthony’s public stances on…well…most things, and as someone who actively and passionately spends a lot of time trying to ensure that there is a prompt end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. I even say this as someone who wishes that Hillel had made this an open event.

      I wish it was open because it would give more students the opportunity to challenge this speaker, who I think really really needs to be challenged. I don’t wish it was open because it must be in order to not be discriminatory.

      • Alex, we’ve debated Brown Hillels open access before. Lets agree to disagree for now.


        if a campus organization wants to have a meeting they are entitled to hold one for its members. However the campus organization, to be recognized has to follow the rules of open access to its membership. I should be able to join the African students association and the Chinese Students Association etc.

        If an external organization such as the Hillel wants to have a meeting for its membership, thats entirely legal (i think), if the college rents the space. But i think they will have to pay for the space. Because its a private meeting.

        However either of them can’t claim to have an non member event even on their facilities, invite Brown Students and target minority students for exclusion and subsequently want to use Brown facilities in future.

        Just like a school district. If a school district partners with a private entity then such entities should follow the Federal Equal Access Law.

        Brown has provided access and resources to the Hillel in the past. Now the Hillel is using such resources (address lists, emails etc) to discriminate. That puts Brown in my opinion in legal jeopardy. Minority students can sue Brown under civil rights laws.

        Its just like Boy Scouts use of school facilities. They could not use school facilities if they discriminate on who they enroll. To get around this Congress passed a law ONLY for Boy Scouts.

        • I see how the Hillel is having a non-member event and inviting Brown students, but I don’t see how they are discriminating. Just out of curiosity, could you provide some evidence that the racial composition of the invite list was not representative of the target population (students active in leadership on campus)? If you can, then I completely buy your argument’s legitimacy. If not, I don’t understand how this is different from the CS department’s holding a non-faculty event in which they invite the student population on campus that has taken a CS class before, even if that population is not completely racially balanced.

          • Firstly Its called a Justice Department Civil Rights investigation.

            If the CS department holds a non faculty event and knew that in the past certain ethnic/minority groups attended and deliberately set forth a plan to minimize their attendance, that would be illegal. Just sow u know.

            Let Brown investigate. Why take my word.

  6. Dear President Paxson,

    I definitely agree that Brown students and faculty should have the freedom to invite whoever they want to campus. However, there’s a big difference between the way the Ray Kelly event was set up, and how the IDF event is being presented- as an alum, I spoke out against the Ray Kelly protests, because I believed that the protests disrupted a valuable chance for students of color to directly address Kelly- a chance that most POCs rarely get to experience. However, the ridiculous secrecy and concealment of this event is unacceptable. The fact that Hillel chose not to advertise it, or even announce it on its events page violates principles of open access in our community. Inviting only ‘student leaders’ doesn’t allow others with a real stake in this issue to participate in the discussion. I don’t believe this sort of exclusionary event management should be a part of the amazing academic experience that Brown was for me.

    • Do you really need it spelled out for you? Maybe after seeing the immature, hypocritical protest that the fringe radicals so rampant at Brown pulled during Kelly’s speech, Hillel thought it was best to not risk another interruption, which would result in sending their speaker home without a chance to give his talk.

  7. Buttz Henderson says:

    woah when did chris paxson learn to arrange words into sentences? this is big guys

    but seriously way to argue in favor of something that no one is arguing against. that takes a lot of courage. you are the worst.

    • also big lol @: ” Students have many options. One is to attend the talk (if it is open to the general population)[which it isn’t], listen and ask hard questions[which we can’t]. Another is to boycott the talk [which is impossible if we aren’t allowed in the first place]. Yet another option is to protest [as long as the protest takes a form which is easily ignored].”

      The Queen of Sheen strikes again.

  8. Wait, so does Christina Paxson believe in a 2-state solution?

  9. Nice how Chris Paxson is comparing this guy to Malcolm X in terms of defending controversial voices on campus. Malcolm X totally came to Brown to sell a select group of undergraduates on the nobility and courage of an occupation regime.

    • And Malcolm X was a clear anti-Semite too, but he was allowed to speak anyway. Forgot that point, didn’t you? Or do you also defend the hate speech of Elijah Mohammed and Louis Farrakhan?

  10. “They have argued that there are some people whose ideas are so hurtful to members of the community that they should not be invited to speak at Brown” it’s not their ideas it’s what they actually do

  11. “I certainly do not want to revert to the old days, in which the approval of the Brown president was needed to invite a controversial speaker to campus. I would also oppose giving this power of approval to any other person or group on campus. Such a move would hurt the entire community. It could even come back to harm the very individuals who have objected to inviting Commissioner Kelly and Sergeant Anthony — by limiting their ability to bring speakers with opposing points of view to campus in the future.”

    No one wants to do this!!!! Christina Paxson is just trying to out-intimidate people whom she is afraid of.

  12. anonymous says:

    Dear President Paxson,

    While I do understand the importance of allowing faculty and student groups to invite who they choose to campus events, I think allowing a man who has condoned the use of white phosphorus and who has committed the atrocities that Sergeant Anthony has is outrageous and detrimental to the community we have at Brown. The use of white phosphorus is in direct violation of the International Law statute that forbids the use of chemical weapons, making anyone who uses white phosphorus a war criminal under international law. If Sergeant Anthony must set foot on Brown’s campus, it should be in a setting that allows students offended by his actions to question him and challenge him, not in a closed environment limited to only a few students.

    That said, I personally do not believe that Sergeant Anthony should be allowed on campus; there is allowing on campus groups to have freedom and there is compromising everything the University stands for (respect for all people, tolerance, diversity, justice), and I believe that this situation crosses the line. Providing Sergeant Anthony with a place to express his murderous opinions and spread his propaganda is deplorable. I beg you to rethink your position on this particular issue as it is disrespectful to the students affected by the actions of men such as Sergeant Anthony.

    • ThisIsPalestine says:

      What “atrocities” has Sergeant Anthony committed, aside from daring to be born Israeli?

    • Please give specific examples of what Sergeant Anthony has committed before calling him a murderer. I find that to be counterproductive. If he has shot children when they were not threatening him, please prove it. If he was specifically using white phosphorus to harm innocent civilians when it was clear that there was no risk of harm, please prove it. Just because atrocities have been committed does not mean that he committed them. If that was the case, every person who has participated in government is corrupt. Every person who has served for the army of any country is a murderer. Every student at Brown has cheated on tests. Please prove your claims first before stating them with such conviction.

      • he condones the use of white phosphorus and openly admits to having used it. this is the equivalent of bringing a speaker who was okay with using napalm and agent orange in vietnam.

  13. There is a fundamental flaw in the fact that the Hillel is an “independent” organization that is not part of the university. No doubt you fuel huge quantities of money into it so as to keep the influential parents and members of the board of governors happy. It is one thing to allow any speaker to come and talk to the university, and another to let this independent body bring someone to spew filthy propaganda to a small group of students. Maybe I would have thought twice before coming to Brown if I had known about the universities double-standard relationship with the Hillel. I wonder how you feel about some group on campus bringing a leader of Hammas or Islamic Jihad to talk about the Israeli terrorism in the Middle East – no doubt your Hillel would have you shut it down.

    • You are correct. As i’ve repeatedly stated, the Hillel uses Brown property (intellectual and physical) all the time. Then they turn around and run a racially discriminating event.

      How can Paxson and the rest of Brown Administration claim that Brown follows Civil Rights Equal access laws when they allow a racially discriminating organization (Hillel) to use Brown facilities.

    • Actually, that is a good test. I encourage you do try to do so and we can see what happens.

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