How a Talk Got Aborted

Brown U. releases report on the disrupted appearance by Ray Kelly, detailing numerous unsuccessful efforts to win over protesters.

February 21, 2014
The scene at the Kelly lecture

Four months after a lecture at Brown University was called off due to protesters interrupting the speaker, the university released a report this week outlining what happened.

The report describes the university repeatedly reaching out in the days before the scheduled lecture to those opposed to the appearance by Ray Kelly, New York City's police commissioner at the time. While the university refused to meet the protesters' demands that the appearance be called off, officials explained ways that protests could be held (without disrupting Kelly's talk) and said that they understood the concerns of protesters, who said that Kelly's "stop and frisk" policies were racist.

The report says that the university offered to sponsor and fund another lecture, later in the year, to offer another view of Kelly's policies.

Further, the report makes clear that senior officials at Brown were concerned about the potential for the talk to be disrupted, but tried to maintain a commitment to free speech. Not only did the university refuse to call off the event (at least until it was under way), but Brown cited free speech to refuse to punish those who drew swastikas on Kelly's image on posters promoting the event.

"Administrators determined that, while offensive to many, including students who had complained to them, the symbols should be protected as a form of free speech and the flyers would not be taken down," the report says.

Those efforts failed on the day of the lecture, when repeated interruptions made it impossible for Kelly to speak, leading to cancellation of the event. The event prompted considerable debate and soul-searching at Brown, where many students and professors who oppose Kelly's policies were uncomfortable with the idea that he was prevented from speaking. (Notably, he agreed not only to speak, but to take questions, so there would have been an opportunity for his critics to have their say after he did.) While some called the protesters intolerant, others defended them, saying that they were exercising political speech.

Christina H. Paxson, president of Brown, criticized the idea of preventing a speaker from talking. She also commissioned two reports by a faculty/student panel -- the first of which has now been released. This report describes in factual terms what happened leading up to and at the lecture. A future report will offer recommendations on how Brown should respond to the incident.

Those looking for blame to be assigned are unlikely to applaud the new report. It closes by simply stating: "The demands and expectations of some students and the actions of the administration operated within the context of multiple pressures. It is this committee's view that there are many lessons to be learned from this episode. These lessons will inform the committee’s work as we enter the second phase of our charge."

In describing the lecture itself, the report notes that the administration received an anonymous email warning of plans by protesters to walk out of the lecture. And the report found that some students assumed that they would be led out of the lecture hall after interrupting, one by one. But when students who interrupted just sat down after cutting off Kelly, that plan fizzled.

The report finds that many of the students felt threatened by the presence of numerous local police officers who came to see Kelly (and told the university in advance of their intent and received permission to do so). "Those who protested the lecture indicated that this uniformed police presence was a visual symbol of the potentially threatening nature of Commissioner Kelly’s policies for Rhode Islanders of color," the report says.

Two reasons were given by the university officials who called off the event after Kelly tried repeatedly to start his talk. One reason was the mix of Brown students and non-students from the local area among the protest group. Brown police officers "would not be asked to approach any protester" because of this mix, the report says. The other reason was that "among the administrators and staff members interviewed, some cited fears that the tension in the room would escalate to violence (others disagreed)."

While the new report doesn't take a stand on whether various decisions were correct, it is already getting criticized from some who think the protesters are being unfairly maligned and others who think the university should already be punishing those who interrupted the lecture (something that could happen eventually, but would depend in part on the second report). .

One comment posted on the website of The Brown Daily Herald said: "Ask yourself. Would the university have invited a speaker that would piss off a powerful community within Brown, its administration or board. The mumbo jumbo about free speech is just that. Only when they wish to invite someone who humiliates minority communities at Brown."

But that view was in the minority of those posting. Others said that the university should have taken stronger steps to permit Kelly to speak or to punish those who blocked that from happening. One said: "These students should have been reprimanded immediately. The fact that she formed a committee that nearly 4 months later is only just done with part 1 (part 1!) of [Paxson's] 'response' is a joke."

One alumnus wrote: "There can be no 'contextualizing' of what happened at Brown. Unintimidated discourse should be the inviolate 'context' -- and that is an absolute. 'Contextualizing' is what happens when the bullies win. The police chief of New York -- whose perspective would have been, at the very least, informative -- was shouted down by two dozen adolescents. Meanwhile, the intelligent part of the Brown community -- the other nine thousand -- was denied an opportunity to question him."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education late Thursday issued a statement calling for the second report to go further. "The heckler's veto is incompatible with liberal principles of freedom of expression. Speech with which we disagree must be met by more speech, not mob censorship. Shouting down Kelly denied all present the opportunity to participate in what was to have been over an hour's worth of questions and answers," the statement said. "Brown students and faculty are promised the free exchange of ideas -- even those ideas that many find objectionable. We trust that the second phase of the report will recognize and uphold Brown's commitment to the free exchange of ideas, a necessary component of the search for truth."

One fact in the report points to an irony about the event. Kelly was invited to Brown as part of an endowed lecture series that has in the past presented talks by numerous public figures. While there have been a number of Republicans, the list in the report suggests that many of the lectures came from the left of the political spectrum -- people like Senator Cory Booker, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Howard Dean, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel and others.

The report says that the idea of inviting Kelly came from the family that endowed the lecture. They wanted "an effort to represent different viewpoints and spark discussion."





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