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Controversial speakers continue to spur engaging U. discussion

From Malcolm X to Ron Paul, visiting speakers can bring mixed reviews, tension and debate to campus

Speakers with controversial viewpoints who hail from diverse corners of the world have long been coming to Brown to expose students to perspectives outside their comfort zones. From civil rights activists to world leaders and presidential candidates, renowned figures have delivered lectures that have sparked student dialogue and continued discussion of contentious topics of the time.


Polarizing politics

On May 12, 1961, Malcolm X addressed a captivated audience in Sayles Hall, where he voiced his trademark view, characterized by a Herald report from the time as arguing that “the only solution to the American race problem is complete and total separation of the black and white races.”

During a question-and-answer session following the lecture, one student asked, “What can the cult of the black Muslims do for someone who has already improved his own social, moral and economic state?” according to the Herald article. Malcolm X responded with vigor, “Nothing, it can do nothing for you,” spurring bursts of laughter from the audience.

Malcolm X’s talk at Brown was one of several hundred he gave on a nationwide college tour. The crowd reactions varied depending on the composition of the audience at each destination, The Herald reported at the time.

“Gentiles generally view my remarks with a background of Americanism, fairly objectively, but Jews seem to be more subjective, worrying about how the movement will affect them,” Malcolm X said during his speech, The Herald reported.

Concern about potentially volatile student reactions has prompted the University to consider increasing security for high-profile speakers. When Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan, agreed to lecture at the University in 2009, his controversial presidency generated great student interest and heightened levels of security, The Herald reported at the time. Andrew Chapin ’10, then-president of the Brown Lecture Board, said the Department of Public Safety, the U.S. State Department and Musharraf’s personal security team all worked together to ensure the event ran smoothly, The Herald reported.

Though the event operated according to plan, video recordings of the lecture were not allowed under the terms of  Musharraf’s contract with Lecture Board.

“Ensuring the safety of the speaker ... is something that is considered part of the process of selecting speakers,” said David O’Connell ’16, a Lecture Board member.


Pie in the face of protest 

A student-run organization, Lecture Board aims to invite speakers that “students will be interested in,” according to its mission statement. Controversy most often arises “when there are outspoken students that attend the event who do not align their views with the speaker,” O’Connell said. At times, “their aggression can be a little overbearing,” he added. In recent years, Brown has hosted numerous controversial lecturers, sometimes with unexpected results.

As Thomas Friedman, an American columnist and journalist who writes for the New York Times, began a lecture on environmentalism in April 2008, a female audience member bolted out of her front-row seat to throw a Cool-Whip cream pie into his face. Immediately following her actions, a male accomplice scattered pamphlets outlining their motivation and listing their objections to Friedman’s approach to being “green,” which included “his sickeningly cheery applaud for free market capitalism’s conquest of the planet,” The Herald reported at the time.

Though Friedman was unharmed and relatively uninterrupted — save for a quick 10-minute face-washing recess — such an incident exposed challenges for security to ensure a safe environment in which future speakers can peacefully exchange thoughts and opinions.

“The University has protest policies,” said Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations. “If someone’s coming and there’s a group that’s protesting, we want to ensure that there’s a place for that protest to occur that doesn’t disturb the free exchange of ideas.”

At a panel about same-sex marriage in Rhode Island hosted Tuesday by the The Herald and the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, several students opposing the inclusion of certain speakers against same-sex marriage stood in the back of MacMillan 117 with protest signs and tape over their mouths.


Open for debate  

Last Wednesday, the Lecture Board hosted former Congressman Ron Paul, who spoke about his skepticism of large government and his opposition to war.

“We were well aware of the level of controversy that Ron Paul would bring, but we felt the students in attendance would be respectful,” O’Connell said.

Students voiced disagreement with Paul’s “homophobic and dehumanizing comments,” O’Connell said, especially those “regarding his preference that the gay population would just keep to themselves.” To counter hostility from some audience members, Paul then acknowledged that “nobody, himself included, is perfect,” O’Connell said.

Paul is not the first speaker to come to Brown who has been criticized for espousing discriminatory beliefs. “Every group has an incentive when they’re bringing in a speaker to bring someone engaging who will attract a large crowd, and that sometimes lends itself to controversial speakers,” said Jeanne Jeong ’12, a former Janus Forum Steering Committee director.

The Janus Forum is an organization associated with the Political Theory Project, which “seeks to inspire open-minded debate on relevant political, social and economic issues,” according to its website. In November 2011, the group invited Glenn Greenwald, an American political journalist, and former Bush administration member John Waters to debate drug decriminalization policies in the United States and Portugal.

Controversial political topics sometimes agitate audience members who have differing personal ideologies. After Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian-American human rights activist, delivered a lecture at Brown in 2007, students attacked her views and criticized her lack of credentials, The Herald reported at the time. One student said he only attended this event to “embarrass the people who brought (Darwish) here,” The Herald reported.

Despite such heated responses,  some students saw the event as an opportunity,  Becky Mer ’10 told The Herald at the time. “The dialogue that took place tonight is a sign of student body interest, and I would love this to be translated into further dialogue, greater understanding and possible solutions,” she told The Herald after Darwish’s lecture.

It is important to have a variety of viewpoints on a campus, Quinn said, “where an individual can engage in the full exchange of ideas in a civil and thoughtful way,” she said.

“It’s useful to challenge our thoughts and perspectives with perspectives that may be different from our own,” she said. “That’s part of the role of higher education.”


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