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Letters: Community weighs in on protest, cancellation of Ray Kelly lecture

You could excuse an observer to the spectacle at Ray Kelly’s talk this afternoon for confusing it with a Tea Party rally. For a university that claims to hold sacrosanct the values of free speech, open dialogue and exchange of opposing ideas, we put on a display which left the distinct impression that those are little more than hollow talking points masking an unwillingness to hear out anyone who holds a different opinion.

But more than that, this afternoon was a supreme showing of disrespect — primarily for our administration (members of whom were repeatedly shouted down), the large numbers of Providence police officers (who no doubt were interested in hearing from a leading officer in their field) and Kelly’s right to speak. I disagree with his stop-and-frisk policy. But he is unquestionably one of the most influential and important people in the country, and I would have very much liked to hear him express his thoughts.

Surely a liberal education must include engaging meaningfully and civilly with those whose views differ from yours, and surely being open-minded means more than only interacting with ideas in accordance with your own.

Nihaal Mehta ’14


I was disappointed to learn a public forum at Brown was canceled because some students opposed the ideas they expected would be expressed. Muscling opposing views, even reprehensible ones, into silence is coercive and intimidating. A basic commitment of principled liberalism is tolerating the expression of unpopular or disliked views. To those who decided to use your vocal and numerical superiority to stifle expression: No one was asking you to host Ray Kelly in your home. We’re talking about a private entity, using its own resources, sponsoring expression it wanted to sponsor. If you only believe in freedom of speech with respect to your own beliefs, you don’t believe in it at all. In the future, do not complain if others silence you. By your conduct, you endorse the legitimacy of such silencing.

Bradley Silverman ’13


The student body and administration should be embarrassed by the behavior of the intolerant goons who prevented the speech. They should also be disappointed the administration tolerated such boorish behavior.

Despite all the proclamations of the liberal Brown University as a place of tolerance and diversity, modern liberalism rears its ugly head of truth: It only tolerates those who think “correctly.”

It amazes me that conservatives are called intolerant, yet one never hears of liberal speakers being overrun by conservative hecklers. The reverse seems standard.

Jonathan Bastian ’89


In response to the protest of Ray Kelly’s lecture, there will be an outcry from academic purists — as well as folks involved in the Political Theory Project — about how we need to engage with all voices and perspectives at Brown. This is a played-out argument, and here is why it doesn’t make sense.

The reason to maintain rigor in an academic environment is to eliminate bias and make sure no one perspective achieves such dominance that it is unchallengeable. We know that when this happens, freedom of speech is compromised, ideas are stifled and our conclusions become fallacious as a result.

This is exactly what the students protesting Kelly’s lecture were trying to preserve (among other things). The system Kelly promotes actively disenfranchises people of color. It makes them afraid to be in certain neighborhoods, to wear certain clothes, to be too close to the authorities. It breeds distrust and anger and, most importantly, is antithetical to a free and just society.

Racism is not a valid viewpoint. This much is written directly into Brown law. While racism is certainly wrong, it is also unrigorous. It makes assumptions without evidence. It does not need to be respected, valued or allowed, much like any other perspective which makes assumptions without evidence.

In this case, two wrongs do make a right, much like two negatives make a positive. It is the definition of tolerance to be intolerant of intolerance. As an alum, I am proud to be part of the community that booed Kelly offstage. Nobody needs to entertain arguments that assert this in any way prevents open discourse.

Chris Norris-LeBlanc ’13


The positive reactions from several students to the cancelation of the lecture are unwarranted. While I have seen many students express pride in the student body for having their voices heard and for raising the voices of the oppressed, those students are mistaken in what message was primarily portrayed this afternoon. The message delivered in List was not only dictated by what was shouted, but by the shouting itself. Through the uncivil and disrespectful manner in which this group of students chose to communicate with Ray Kelly, Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Margaret Klawunn, Vice President for Public Affairs and University Relations Marisa Quinn, and Taubman Center Director Marion Orr, the message that Kelly’s policies are racially charged was overshadowed by the message that a population of Brown students are unable to, at the very least, listen to views that do not correspond with their own. The most upsetting aspect of this situation is the fact that I agree with the messages, in relation to Kelly, that these students wished to present. But the methods with which they were communicated were ineffective and immature. If we as Brown students wish to be regarded as an intellectual community, then we must express our opinions in a manner in which we will be perceived as such. What occurred today only moved us further away from that goal.

Duane Barksdale ’17


I am adamantly against Ray Kelly’s policies, but I didn’t participate in the mass booing that ended his talk prematurely for a reason: I wanted to challenge him through the “open discourse” President Christina Paxson has openly shamed the Brown community for suppressing. Yet Paxson’s response sorely lacks in engagement with the complexity of this protest and the motivations behind it.

The students and community members who organized this protest did so not merely because they found Kelly “offensive,” as the president’s letter implies, but because of the deep inequalities he continues to perpetuate and stand for, as well as the lack of University engagement when it came to discussing choice of speaker. Were there better ways to make a statement than to shout him down? Probably. But the feelings that incited the crowd to this level of unrest are important and critical to address, something Paxson dismisses with axioms about how we should challenge intellectually rather than viscerally, or with statements that we are somehow infringing on an inherent right Kelly had to speak at Brown. But power dynamics have given Kelly a considerable, administration-backed platform that protestors cannot access. There has been no viable way to express dissent at the University’s choice of sponsored speaker in a setting where students feel like they are really being listened to. When Paxson tells us she is going to reach out and apologize to Kelly but makes no mention of the specific issues students have raised that question the potential implications of having him here, she does not take a stance against racial profiling and inequality. Instead, she makes it seem trivial — a matter of dissenting opinion alone. Yes, Brown students may have behaved “badly” in a sense. But the truth of this situation, and others like it, is that focusing on demonizing this particular behavior does not account for the entirety of the issue and fails to address the very things that students literally screamed to try and draw attention to.

Shouting is probably counter productive in some ways. But it is a tactic used when people don’t feel like civil discourse will result in change, and don’t think they’re being heard. And we should look into why we think that.

Yvonne Yu ’13


The goal of a liberal education is to give students access to a range of views on topics of the day. It is especially important to expose students to a range of different beliefs. Giving students exposure to different beliefs gives them a chance to make informed decisions about what they themselves believe. The people who silenced Ray Kelly at Tuesday’s lecture appear to be arguing it is wrong to let someone with whom you disagree speak. Censorship does not suggest moral authority to me so much as it does fear: a fear that letting an opposing viewpoint speak might make that viewpoint seem more understandable. The protesters who sought to defeat Kelly’s ideas by silencing him achieved the opposite of their intended goal: Their unintellectual aggression merely magnified the idea that he had something meaningful to say.

Elisha Anderson ’98, associate director of college admission


The Taubman Center’s full name is “The Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions.” It follows that invited speaker Ray Kelly is indeed a high-profile individual working directly on public policy in an American political institution (shocker!). Therefore, it makes me uncomfortable that so many students participated in preventing Kelly from speaking and thus prevented this usually eloquent community from “lighting the fire under his unconstitutional ass with tough questions,” so to speak. This would have been a more peaceful, more constructive way to engage in discourse in the spirit of free inquiry.

As a highly liberal, LGBTQ woman of color who has spent more than enough time living in New York City to get a taste of the unsavory effects of Kelly’s policies, the whole incident underscores something bigger that I haven’t been able to adequately express. Yes, Kelly’s policies blatantly violate the Fourth Amendment. But the discourse on campus claiming that because the oppressed are never given adequate opportunities to speak, it is okay to belligerently prevent voices who challenge their so-called oppression an equally valid chance to speak is unacceptable.

This instance has made it clear we need to stop engaging in radical, bipolar discourse that pits a homogenous, “privileged” group against a homogenous, “oppressed” group. The “identities” and “histories” of individuals who do not fit the description of a stereotypical white male status quo comprise a multitude of experiences, and feeling unrecognized by the larger political and social bodies in our world is no excuse for bullying someone with opposing views into silence.

I have never felt compelled to write anything of this nature before because, while I certainly don’t fit into the heterosexual, white male status quo, I also don’t feel comfortable aligning myself with a constructed, unified group of individuals who differ from the majority due to various identity characteristics that may include, race, gender and sexual orientation, amongst other things. Let it be known that there are more than two voices at stake here. Until we acknowledge that, we cannot have productive discourse about anything on this campus.

Sheila Sitaram ’15


Today’s lecture by New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was an embarrassment to the Brown and Providence communities. Stop-and-frisk is obviously controversial, and this was reflected in a federal court’s August decision. The title of the lecture was actually chosen by Kelly and his staff. While I do not agree with stop-and-frisk, I believe this talk was a learning opportunity hijacked by a select portion of the Brown and Providence communities. As a Taubman Center public policy graduate student, this lecture presented me the chance to receive insight on policing in America’s largest city. The Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions teaches that policies, both positive and negative, are learning experiences. While this policy of “proactive policing” left many victims of institutionalized racism, there are a broad number of experiences that only Kelly can reflect on. We lost the opportunity tonight to learn about those. I, as a future policy entrepreneur and former New Yorker, now lack knowledge I would have otherwise gained through a civil discourse. It is now unlikely I will ever be able to directly engage with Kelly and ask the questions I have for him. Those questions actually do not relate to stop-and-frisk but other issues prevalent among the NYPD that I have experienced as both a resident of New York City and a Bellevue rape crisis advocate.

There is a time and place for everything. The University is a place for productive, open discourse. Young people and future leaders are given the opportunity to challenge the ideas of these policies and other topics within the university. Today, members of my community — who made this conversation impossible — expressed a total disregard for the people who were there to participate in productive inquiry. The community members who participated in heckling demonstrated a total disregard for students who pay an enormous price for the privilege to sit in those seats, listen and ask questions. Brown provides community access to these lecture free of charge. A possible repercussion of today’s events may be banning community members from these forums. In addition, controversial speakers asked to come Brown in the future may not consider doing so. Brown students, especially those masters’ students like myself who receive little financial support, pay for the opportunity to have these discussions and incorporate them into our future careers in public service. For those who support today’s occurrences or participated in it, you blocked future policymakers from learning from the past and harm already done.

Lisa Opdycke GS


Since coming to Brown last fall, I have attended countless lectures and presentations on a range of issues. Some I agreed with, and some I did not. But for me, this opportunity has been the core of my education at Brown, offering exposure and the opportunity to learn more — the possibility of challenging my way of thinking. I thought this was the campus I was choosing to engage with.

Today, that engagement was shut down. There was no dialogue or conversation. There was no chance to learn the thoughts of another person. I strongly believe every story has multiple sides — it is important to be open-minded and to not only hear, but to listen. What is the harm in hearing a story through and then questioning what it is worth? What is the value of intentionally shutting off ideas? By shutting down Ray Kelly’s lecture today, protesters engaged in a “silencing” of their own. The few prevented the many students who wanted to hear from absorbing. Where is the civil disobedience in that? I had always thought two wrongs don’t make a right.

Jason Ginsberg ’16


The protestors succeeded in displaying  close-mindedness and suppression of free speech. The Taubman Center invited Ray Kelly to speak about a controversial public policy issue. Brown prides itself on providing an open environment conducive to free speech and diverse perspectives. Whether or not people agree with Kelly’s policies, the proper forum for voicing opinions would have been in the question-and-answer session or by protesting outside the building. Disrupting his lecture resulted in the following:

A) Preventing students seeking to learn from Kelly’s lecture from doing so.

B) Precluding a factual presentation from a knowledgeable source on the topic.

C) Contradicting Brown’s mission to support diversity in perspective.

This issue has made me embarrassed to be a Brown student.

Daniel Boulanger ’17


The behavior of Brown students during Ray Kelly’s address was in very poor taste. Brown students of my generation were respectful of all guests invited to speak, even when it was George Lincoln Rockwell.

Freedom of speech means freedom to speak! How embarrassing to our great university.

Steve Liebmann ’60


As I waited in line patiently to enter the List Art Center, I listened to the chants of my fellow peers. I enjoyed their passion and tenacity. Unfortunately, whilst deep in thought about how Ray Kelly would defend himself against such charges as racism, sexism and homophobia, I learned the venue was full and nobody else was going to be let in. I assumed it filled so quickly because many people were interested in what he had to say.

But as the afternoon went on, I began hearing the presentation had been cancelled.

It was not simply that Kelly had fallen ill or been unable to attend. No: We, the Brown and greater Providence community, had heckled him to the point where he could not give his presentation. This saddens me. What the Brown community claims to value the most — open-mindedness and intellectual conversation — are not what it practices.

We had the power to show we could be civilized enough to let a high-ranking public servant try to explain his ways in a factual, comprehensive and intelligent manner. But instead we acted like children and refused to hear what we do not agree with.

Wouldn’t it have been more effective to listen and reserve hopefully thought-provoking questions until the question-and-answer session at the end? Wouldn’t it have showed that we truly will hear others out on issues where we disagree? Wouldn’t it have been the right thing to do to uphold the free speech we used to protest by letting him at least give his piece?

But no. We showed the world that if you don’t agree with us, you don’t get to share your opinion or be heard. It’s no wonder Brown has such a controversial reputation around the country.

Ben Owens ’17


I transferred to Brown two years ago in order to find an open-minded and vibrant intellectual community. Unfortunately, I have instead found far too often an overwhelming homogeneity of opinion in campus discourse and, more troubling, demagoguery of the worst kind by a minority of radical thinkers. I recognize many of our students are proudly progressive and gravely concerned with questions of social identity and equity. But when students — in the name of creating a “safe space” — deem some voices so outside the bounds of accepted discourse that they cannot even be heard, our community ceases to be one of ideas. After what happened to Ray Kelly, which other speakers of an even remotely non-leftist stripe would ever consider coming to Brown? Instead, we are creating an echo chamber in which we only host thinkers espousing our own narrow set of accepted views on politics, gender identity, race and social equality. I wish I could say this intolerance was not representative of student conduct here, but unfortunately I think we all know it is. I am profoundly embarrassed to attend this institution.

Ross Lerner ’14


The cancelation of the Ray Kelly lecture is an example of why I sometimes get tired of Brown. In a school where we say we are open to and accepting of different ideas, we don’t always allow everyone to voice their opinion, but instead try to force a set of single-minded ideals, feeling offended when someone has a different opinion. Why can’t we ever actually focus on dialogue and ask important questions, rather than draw conclusions from what we think we know about issues and protest everything? Unfortunately at Brown, I have come to realize that debate and discussion are not part of the community. Instead, they are substituted by protests and tmany people feeling like they are being offended as theyjump  on the I’m-a-cool-liberal-at-Brown bandwagon. Here’s to hoping for a more accepting and better educated Brown.

Arturo Cardenas ’15


I find the use of free speech to deny others the opportunity to speak offensive and unconscionable anywhere, but particularly on a university campus.  I came to Brown almost 45 years ago because Brown was a place where people were able to listen to others and respected their rights.

Maurice Glicksman, professor and provost emeritus


I don’t understand what denying Ray Kelly the ability to speak accomplishes, besides denying fellow students the right to hear him. Was it just an attempt by the protesters to stroke their own egos by shouting down someone they disagree with — someone big and powerful, someone more successful than them? Or do they believe their fellow students are so juvenile and impressionable that they can’t listen critically and form their own opinions? Are they afraid Kelly might somehow be so convincing and trick us all into supporting racial profiling? My classmates and I are intelligent enough to make up our own minds. I don’t need to simply buy into what one side tells me. I have the right to form my own educated opinions based on multiple perspectives. I realize that because I’m white some might deem my opinion invalid. I am Jewish though, and if a neo-Nazi came to speak, while I would certainly protest against his beliefs, I would never infringe on his right to speak. I know what freedom means. It’s ironic that some of these so called fighters for it don’t.

Zachary Fredman ’17


There is a great deal of shame circulating through the student body: shame for silencing Ray Kelly, shame for silencing the University’s right wing, shame for failing to recognize the importance of dialogue. These feelings are not unwarranted. Today marked another tragic moment in that oft-bemoaned history of Brown’s coercively left-leaning discourse.

But this is not the matter at hand.

To make Kelly’s talk a matter of intra-university discourse is an immensely arrogant error. I agree with the critics: I would have loved to hear how Kelly would have defended himself. But this desire — to engage in a dialogue, to appreciate the full range spectrum of opinions — is a privilege, fundamentally failing to recognize the real, tangible horrors of Kelly’s stop-and-frisk policy.

If we believe in the terror of stop-and-frisk, then we have to evaluate critically the best way for the students at this university to fight against it. Discourse aside, there is no doubt that today’s lecture shut-down was the most effective way to speak out against stop-and-frisk. As a result of today’s protest, the opposition to stop-and-frisk has been bullhorned to an exponential degree: Media outlets from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times are paying attention, the Taubman center is certainly paying attention and administrators have been forced to confront a real, active student voice.

The counterargument here is valid: The anger with which the protest fought today was not particularly conducive to convincing “undecideds”— let alone Kelly himself — to end stop-and-frisk. But the politics of disruption is not civil, and it does not abide by traditional rules of respect — for people’s time, for people’s emotional comfort and certainly for the University’s finances. Ray Kelly was never going to walk away from his question-and-answer session thinking, “Well my gosh, those students are really sumthin.’ Better pony up and ditch that Stop-and-Frisk policy!” Today, students participated in real civil disobedience in support of a real cause of justice.

This is not a matter of principle. When we confront issues of hatred, discrimination, violence and evil, we must engage in a strategic politics above all.

Today was a small tragedy for discourse, to be sure. But it was a big victory for justice.

David Adler ’14



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