Fifty Years, Same Story: Brown’s Blockage of Open Discussion

In November of 2014, President Christina Paxson sparked controversy with her reaction to the Janus Forum’s debate, “How Should Colleges Handles Sexual Assault?” an event in which two speakers, Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy, were invited to represent opposing viewpoints about rape culture on college campuses. The presence of McElroy, who has authored an article called “The Big Lie of ‘Rape Culture,’” upset many students who did not want her to step on campus and spread such inflammatory opinions at Brown. McElroy argues in her article that the idea of rape culture is a myth, and compares it to propaganda used by Hitler. Even though McElroy was to provide one viewpoint which would be countered by Valenti in the debate, Paxson retaliated by scheduling another lecture, “Research on Rape Culture,” to occur at a time that conflicted with the debate and to include arguments that refuted McElroy’s.

Had President Paxson scheduled the additional lecture to take place at another time, so that students were able to attend both the lecture and the Janus Forum debate, students would have had the opportunity to attend both events, benefit from the extra education, and develop their own opinions. By scheduling the event to coincide with the debate, President Paxson chose to limit Brown students’ exposure to perspectives on rape culture. In forcing them to choose between events, Paxson dissuaded students from attending a debate with opinions considered unpalatable at Brown. The handling of the situation seems to belie Paxson’s response to the protests of Ray Kelly’s speech last year, when she maintained that, “Brown has sound policies that promote and preserve freedom of expression, even when the ideas being expressed may be abhorrent.” The contradictory events underscore administrative struggles to straddle the line between creating an environment open to freedom of expression and protecting Brown’s image of upholding certain values. A closer look into Brown’s long history of confronting administrative identity crises reveals that this struggle is not something new.

In 2012, Malcolm Burnley, who was a Brown senior at the time, realized for just how long Brown had been juggling the twin challenges of fostering an environment of open discussion and neutralizing speakers with ideas that seem repugnant to the community and administration. In an interview with BPR, he shared the story of his discovery that Malcolm X had come to Brown against the wishes of the administration in 1961. Burnley, who had been assigned to come up with an original story based on something in the Brown archives for a creative nonfiction class, had been shocked when he stumbled across a picture of Malcolm X in a 1961 copy of the Brown Daily Herald.

“I was shocked,” recalls Burnley, “because Brown had been doing a lot of retrospective speaking about civil rights leaders who came to Brown and the long history of progressivism on campus. Malcolm X never came up.” The fact that Martin Luther King made a visit to Brown University, on the other hand, was widely advertised. After seeing the article, Burnley began to investigate how the visit happened, and why he had never heard of the visit before.

In 1961, a Brown student named Katherine Pierce wrote an article, published in the Brown Daily Herald, arguing against Malcolm X’s separatist stance, and stating that integration was necessary for the progression of racial equality. Malcolm X had read the article and expressed desire to come to the campus to refute it. Pierce and Richard Holbrooke, who was then an editor of the Brown Daily Herald, invited the civil rights leader to come speak to the university.

“The university said absolutely not.” It was within Brown’s rights as a private university to prohibit the students from inviting a speaker they did not want, but it was certainly not conducive to the expression of free speech and debate. Holbrooke, who was a big proponent of free discourse, would not let the matter go without a fight. After several more meeting with the two students, threats from Holbrooke about publishing nasty things about the current university President Keeny and even moving the publication off campus, the administration finally caved. They agreed to let Malcolm X come, but only under several conditions: Someone from the NAACP or another civil rights organization had to come and argue from an opposing viewpoint, and the students would have to take care of making all the arrangements. The school would take care of nothing. Malcolm X even had to provide his own security.

Even though they allowed Malcolm X to come, the school seemed fairly intent on making sure that his visit was as downplayed as possible. “I found out that the school didn’t want to keep a record of Malcolm X coming,” said Burnley, who went through President Keeny’s notes from 1961. Even though Pierce and Holbrooke met with him around half a dozen times to argue for and arrange the meeting, there was not a singular mention of anything having to do with the incident. After the visit, it was as though it had never happened.

It seems that over fifty years later, Brown’s tactic for dealing with unwanted speakers has not changed much. Even when the administration cannot stop the speaker from coming, making it as difficult as possible for the event to happen or for students to access it certainly reduces its impact. It is a sad irony that a school’s administration should try to limit students’ access to such diverse resources, a strategy fueled more by politics than by education.

When asked why the university made such an effort to minimize Malcolm X’s visit, Burley explained that in 1961, Brown was a very different place than it is now. Whereas now, Brown touts the reputation of being one of the more freethinking and liberal schools of its caliber, half a century ago its administration at least was rather conservative and still fairly tied to its strong Christian roots. “There were only about six black students in each grade,” Burnley said.

So why did the school advertise its hosting of other leaders, like Martin Luther King? According to Burnley, the school recognized that change was inevitably coming, and saw integration as a much more mild and therefore more appetizing route than Malcolm X’s separatist stance. However, as Malcolm Burnley pointed out, “one of the important things to remember is that integration might not have even happened without a presence like Malcolm X forcing people to recognize what a more radical alternative might be.” Here, Burnley hits the crux of why access to a diverse pool of thought and speakers, unrestricted by popular opinion or what at the time is considered politically correct, is so important. We do not have to agree with every speaker we go see—in fact, it is advantageous to attend many speakers aligned with beliefs contrary to our own. Only then do we best know how to defend what we believe. By exposing students to a wide range of opinions, the university would not be endorsing all of them. Rather, it would be offering students a better chance to refine their own. Katherine Pierce, the original author of the piece that inspired Malcolm X to come speak, was a proponent of integration, but knew she only stood to benefit from hearing Malcolm X argue differently. Similarly, a student passionate about preventing campus rape, who subscribes to the notion of rape culture, should have wanted to hear McElroy speak, if only to strengthen and refine her own stance after hearing the counterargument.

It should never be the university’s goal to block students from different opinions and outlooks in the world; Brown is not a bubble. Rather, it should be the school’s goal to provide students with the education and tools they need to be informed individuals who understand the complexities of the world in which we live, so that we can go out into it armed with enough information to form substantiated opinions and defend them.