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Letter: Faculty, student groups free to invite speakers

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




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