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Editorial: Janus Forum and the freedom of expression

Echoes of last fall’s Ray Kelly incident continue to reverberate on campus, most recently manifesting themselves in the controversy surrounding today’s Janus Forum debate, “How Should Colleges Handle Sexual Assault?” The upcoming forum has come to be defined by one of the speakers: Wendy McElroy, a controversial and vocal dissenter of the pervasiveness of rape culture on college campuses. Last Friday, President Christina Paxson authored a campus-wide email contesting McElroy’s opinion and outlined the creation of an alternative event at a concurrent time — a presentation led by Lindsay Orchowski, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, entitled “The Research on Rape Culture.” Addressing the issue of sexual assault undoubtedly stands as a top priority for the University and though the events will be recorded, forcing students to choose between attending these two events effectively marginalizes the importance of unfiltered dialogue and discussion, a point ironically underscored by the administration in its criticism of the hindered Ray Kelly lecture.

We endorse that the Orchowski event be moved to a different time or repeated so students may attend both events and gain an academic understanding of the extent and potential solutions to sexual assault on college campuses.

Though we very much acknowledge the pressing importance of confronting sexual assault on campus and the underlying sensitivity of the issue, this most recent administrative action calls into question the role and character of dialogue on campus. The Janus Forum — which has facilitated several controversial, yet equitable debates in recent years — underscored this same concern in an opinion column in Monday’s Herald titled, “In response to President Paxson’s most recent email.” “When students are forced to choose, events no longer serve to ‘provide the community with more research and facts about these important issues,’ as Paxson hoped for in her email,” the Forum wrote. We worry that the double-booking comes out of the administration’s attempt to head off a disruption similar to the one which occurred at the Ray Kelly lecture.

Additionally, Paxson’s plan seems to contradict her response to the Kelly event regarding free speech. In the words of Paxson in her campus-wide response to the Ray Kelly incident, “Brown has sound policies that promote and preserve freedom of expression, even when the ideas being expressed may be abhorrent.” Though the character of the Ray Kelly lecture may have indeed dealt with an issue not explicitly present on campus (i.e. the stop-and-frisk policy of the New York Police Department), this underlying tenet of free expression cannot merely adapt to the topic of discussion, regardless of its ultimate degree of sensitivity or attention.

So to send a message that would endorse freedom of expression on campus, the University need only to escort disruptive individuals out of the event and let it progress.  This would show that the University standards of free speech and respect apply to discussing this issue.

By effectively double-booking students interested in sexual assault reform, Paxson both undercut the inherent structure and importance of the topical debate and, even more significantly, contradicted both her own stated precedent and the University’s commitment to free speech. Sexual assault is very much a pressing issue on campus and must be addressed as such. That the University has a different stance than McElroy is a learning opportunity, and students should have the option to both hear why the University takes the stance it does and compare it to McElroy’s position. In addition, as a community, we must ensure that the ability to freely discuss the issue — regardless of opinion and stance — will be supported and facilitated, not dampened.

 

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Alexander Kaplan ’15 and James Rattner ’15, and its members, Natasha Bluth ’15, Manuel Contreras ’16, Baxter DiFabrizio ’15, Manuel Monti-Nussbaum ’15, Katherine Pollock ’16 and Himani Sood ’15. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.

Note: Rattner, a member of the Janus Forum, recused himself from the writing and editing of this editorial.



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