10-29-2013: Letter to the Brown Community

October 29, 2013

Dear Members of the Brown Community,

Earlier today, a 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 prevented from taking place. Some students and members of the local community in the auditorium disrupted the lecture through shouting, persistent interruption, and coordinated chants to the point that University officials had no choice but to declare the event over.

This is a sad day for the Brown community. I appreciate that some members of our community objected to the views of our invited speaker. However, our University is – above all else – about the free exchange of ideas. Nothing is more antithetical to that value than preventing someone from speaking and other members of the community from hearing that speech and challenging it vigorously in a robust yet civil manner.

As is the case with virtually every lecture or event on this campus, the publicly stated program was for Commissioner Kelly to speak for a short amount of time followed by nearly an hour 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 right to speak, members of our community were denied their right to challenge him. That is unfair to everyone involved and disrespectful to the rights we all embrace and should be vigilant in upholding as members of an academic community.

The content of speech is often offensive to us as individuals and as community members. We have seen other instances on campus just this week of the use of symbols associated with some of the most heinous atrocities in human history to make a political point. Those symbols and posters were deeply offensive to many of us, including me, yet we responded to it by making our position and views known to others through the vigorous expression of values and ideas. Challenging views, arguments, and speech with which we disagree is expected in our community; doing so with intellectual rigor, careful analysis, and a commitment to respectful dialogue and discussion is also an expectation of our community.

I will contact Commissioner Kelly to convey my deepest regret for the manner in which he was treated on our campus this afternoon. I have asked Vice President for Campus Life & Student Services Margaret Klawunn to work with faculty and students to convene a forum for the campus to discuss our values and expectations as a community further in the coming days.

Brown’s character and culture calls for confronting pressing societal issues through education, activism, engagement, and rigorous discourse. Protest is welcome, but protest that infringes on the rights of others is simply unacceptable. We must work together to sustain this and the other core values that define us as a community.

Sincerely,
 
Christina H. Paxson