Given Attorney General Jeff Session’s address at Georgetown Law School about protecting freedom of speech and the controversy surrounding Free Speech Week at the University of California at Berkeley, the issue of free speech on college campuses has once again taken center stage. These debates have also unfolded here at Brown. We, as members of the Brown community, have much to be proud of, but we are not without our faults. Our campus’ lack of diversity of thought is arguably one of the most concerning. By failing to have diversity of political ideologies represented in our faculty and guest lecturers, we cultivate a culture of hostility toward opposing beliefs and create a self-reinforcing echo chamber that hinders productive dialogue and progress. We need to actively fight to bring more diverse speakers, guests and faculty to our campus so that we can promote meaningful conversation and help move our campus and country forward.
College campuses across the country are battling with this predicament. In these battles over who should be welcomed on campus, and who should be given a platform, the cries for censorship seem to be prevailing. College campuses, which are designed to be bastions of debate and open mindedness, are becoming places intolerant of free and respectful discourse. For example, this past week students at the College of William and Mary shouted down Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia office of the American Civil Liberties Union, because they did not like that the ACLU had defended the First Amendment rights of the neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville. At Wesleyan University, the student government revoked its funding for their campus newspaper in 2016 because it published an op-ed that did not align with many students’ political beliefs.
We have seen this sort of censorship play out on our campus, too, as our own classmates shouted down New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in 2014. To disagree with the mainstream liberal ideology is now a capital offense, punishable by denying these individuals an opportunity to explain their ideas. It’s true that some of the policies that Kelly championed as commissioner — such as stop-and-frisk — targeted minorities. But these tactics are best critiqued through critical discussion and analysis, not erasure. Our campus also often invites more liberal than conservative figures. This year, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs established a lecture series with Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez ’83 P’18 without inviting any of his conservative counterparts. This reflects an ideological unwillingness on the part of the administration and the student body to encounter different perspectives. We here at Brown need to do everything in our power to break this trend.
Bringing more politically diverse speakers to campus will be immensely beneficial for the University and the student body. Of course, this does not mean that we should bring in inflammatory individuals who aim to insult and make fun of the student body; instead, we should invite leading conservative thinkers who come with the goal of teaching and learning. We need to reach out to highly credentialed and well-respected thinkers across the political spectrum, like Gov. Charlie Baker, Gov. John Kasich, Victor Davis Hanson and Yuval Levin. Inviting speakers with unpopular views to campus can help students define their core beliefs through reason, not dogma, and enable them to defend those beliefs intellectually. Hosting discussions with conservative leaders through panel events, speaking opportunities, workshops and other forums —in which students are also given an opportunity to participate — would expose students to new ideas, while allowing them to criticize what they disagree with. These small initiatives would ultimately be a chance for students to grow, understand competing ideas and better realize the spirit of a Brown education. After all, Brown states that its mission is to serve the world by “communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry, and by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.” Failing to expose students to beliefs and ideologies held by millions across the country undermines the University’s commitment to free inquiry and does not prepare Brown graduates to face the reality of political life.
For a liberal democratic society to flourish, its citizens must be willing and eager to truly learn and comprehend other points of view. Shouting down and name-calling only further widen the gap between individuals in our country. As students at Brown, do we want to reflect the ineptitude and gridlock that frustrate us? No. We ought to be brave enough to push forward and engage in the conversations that, while difficult, are necessary for political change. I am not advocating for students to sit and accept whatever a speaker has to say. Rather, let us first hear the different thoughts and perspectives that speakers bring with them and then challenge them. It is only after listening and attempting to comprehend opposing views that we begin a serious and meaningful dialogue. This is the change our nation needs, and it is the change we need as a campus.
I understand that it is not the responsibility of students who face systemic injustice to combat that injustice in their day-to-day lives. I understand that dealing with opposing viewpoints can be uncomfortable, and can even hurt. I understand that it is not easy, for example, to watch a white police commissioner talk about why his department uses stop-and-frisk policing techniques, which disproportionately target black people. But political engagement and political change are not easy or comfortable — they are burdensome missions, and we best advance these missions by hearing out the ideas we find reprehensible and rebutting them in a respectful, rigorous and articulate way. If we fail to do this, we will continue to isolate our University and will relegate our own political ideas to the sidelines because we failed to give any credence or respect to the ideas of others. Working with those you disagree with is difficult, but it is a difficult path that we must walk down to achieve the social change that most Brown students desire. Remaining an echo chamber won’t advance our goals, but by engaging with political diversity we can expand our horizons and broaden our reach.
Bryce Campanelli ’18 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.