Brown U. may discipline students who blocked Ray Kelly’s speech

brown-u-may-discipline-students-who-blocked-ray-kellys-speech
Ray Kelly at Brown University. ()
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

The president of Brown University said an investigation will be held to determine whether students should be disciplined after NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly was blocked by hecklers last week from speaking at the school.

The heckling eventually prompted Kelly to walk off stage and cancel the event.

The incident “was a breach of the University’s fundamental value of open discourse. It cannot be ignored,” wrote Brown president Christina Paxson in a letter to students today, a copy of which was forwarded to Capital.

“Not only was Commissioner Kelly denied the opportunity to speak, but members of our community were denied the opportunity to challenge him. This is a violation of the University’s Code of Student Conduct,” she wrote.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

“If we are to prevent similar episodes in the future, these standards of conduct must be upheld and enforced.”

A “faculty/student committee” will be empaneled to review the incident and make recommendations for possible disciplinary action. The panel will also examine how to “maintain an inclusive environment while upholding our deep commitment to the free exchange of ideas.”

A poll conducted by school’s student paper found 73 percent of respondents disagreed with the protesters, who vocalized opposition to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics and surveillance program. Critics said the initiatives unfairly target minorities and Muslims, and is currently the subject of several federal lawsuits.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the poll results.

Here’s the full letter from Paxson.

November 6, 2013

Dear Brown Alumni and Families,

On October 29, 2013, a planned public lecture and opportunity for questions and answers with New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, hosted by the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, was interrupted by members of the audience, which included members of the Brown and broader Providence communities. After approximately 30 minutes of shouting, persistent interruption, and coordinated chants, University officials closed the event and cleared the auditorium.

I wrote to the campus community that evening declaring my deeply held belief that Brown’s core value of promoting the free and open exchange of ideas is bedrock to our capacity to fulfill our mission as a university. This value applies not only when ideas are agreeable and aligned with our own. Protecting the right to free expression and promoting open discourse is even more essential when ideas are divergent, abhorrent or even hurtful.

In the ensuing days, I have participated in a number of conversations and received many messages—including from alumni and families—expressing widely varying opinions about what took place on our campus. Issues of race, class, social justice, acceptable forms of protest, freedom of expression, and more have been the focus of debate on campus and off as a result of this event. Members of the Brown community have strongly held and often opposing views. This is a defining strength, and we must be vigilant in promoting opportunities for all members of our community to engage in vigorous and challenging discussions—discussions that may at times be difficult and uncomfortable.

The publicly stated program was for Commissioner Kelly to speak for twenty minutes followed by forty minutes of questions and answers on any topic. Many students and other community members who strongly oppose policies and initiatives of the New York City Police Department were prepared to present their perspectives and arguments to Commissioner Kelly. Not only was Commissioner Kelly denied the opportunity to speak, but members of our community were denied the opportunity to challenge him. This is a violation of the University’s Code of Student Conduct, which in its guidelines states:

“Protest is a necessary and acceptable means of expression within the Brown community. However, protest becomes unacceptable when it obstructs the basic exchange of ideas. Such obstruction is a form of censorship, no matter who initiates it or for what reasons.”

If we are to prevent similar episodes in the future, these standards of conduct must be upheld and enforced. We also need to understand the University’s responsibility for the events of last week. Brown hosts controversial speakers on a regular basis. Clearly, something went awry in the planning and oversight of this particular lecture. There is a need to establish the simple facts of what happened and why.

In a subsequent letter to the campus community, I indicated that given the extraordinary nature of these events, I plan to appoint a faculty/student committee to review the episode and make findings and recommendations to me in two phases. In the first phase, the committee will conduct a review of the activities and circumstances related to the October 29 lecture and identify problems with the planning and implementation that may have contributed to the disruption.

In similar instances that have occurred at Brown in the past, students who have violated the Code of Student Conduct have been asked to take responsibility for their actions. After the findings from the first phase of the Committee’s work are complete, we will determine whether individuals or organizations involved should be referred to the University’s established processes for resolving alleged violations of the Code of Student Conduct.

In the second phase, the Committee will address the broader issues of campus climate, free expression, and dialogue across difference that have been the context for much of the discussion and activity of the last week. Specifically, the Committee will make recommendations regarding how the University community can maintain an inclusive environment while upholding our deep commitment to the free exchange of ideas.

What happened in List Auditorium on October 29—the forced cancellation of a lecture by an invited guest of the University—was a breach of the University’s fundamental value of open discourse. It cannot be ignored. However, it is also essential that we confront the very difficult issues raised by the event. The campus discussion this last week has been both painful and revealing. For many members of our community, the topic of the lecture was a reminder of the visceral, emotional reality of their daily lives and the lives of others who have been subjected to racism and inequitable treatment. I believe Brown has the responsibility to engage in discussions on these critically important matters, seeking to address injustice and promote progress and change. The Brown campus community has demonstrated and proven its ability to confront deeply troubling questions and we will do so again.

Sincerely,

Christina H. Paxson

President