The Education Blog
7:57 am
Thu November 7, 2013

Brown Considers Disciplinary Action for Student Protesters

Brown University President Christina Paxson has created a task force after protesters forced New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to halt a lecture.

During his talk on October 29th, protesters repeatedly heckled Kelly, forcing university officials to clear the lecture hall and cancel Kelly's talk. In a letter to the Brown community, Paxon says she is concerned that the protest disrupted the free exchange of ideas at the university. 

Paxson is asking a panel of students and faculty to investigate the incident and determine whether students involved in the protest should face disciplinary action for violating Brown's code of conduct.

The students, along with community activists from outside Brown, were protesting Kelly's support for a police strategy known as stop-and-frisk. The policy allows police officers to make random stops and has been used to decrease gun violence in New York. Critics say it unfairly targets low income and minority residents.

Here's the full text of Paxon's letter:

November 6, 2013

Dear Members of the Brown Community,

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.

The campus discussion of this incident has been difficult. The day after the lecture, I held a forum at which more than 600 students, faculty, and staff came together to talk about the episode. I learned a great deal from this and subsequent discussions. It is impossible not to empathize with our students who strongly object to stop-and-frisk policies and racial profiling. Their feelings, in many cases based on personal experiences, are visceral, raw and genuine. I also understand the concerns of students and others who were upset and affronted that they did not have the opportunity to hear Commissioner Kelly speak and to ask him questions. These different points of view have resulted in an intense debate about whether, in some cases, disrupting a campus lecture is an acceptable form of protest.

I strongly believe that Brown must be a place that supports the free exchange of ideas, even if it means making space for points of view that are controversial or deeply upsetting. The central mission of Brown is to discover, communicate and preserve knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry. Ideas, expressed in writing and in speech, are the basic currency of the University’s work. Impeding the flow of ideas undermines Brown’s ability to fulfill its mission. Making an exception to the principle of open expression jeopardizes the right of every person on this campus to speak freely and engage in open discussion. We must develop and adhere to norms of behavior that recognize the value of protest and acknowledge the imperative of the free exchange of ideas within a university.

This view is laid out in the Brown Code of Student Conduct, which all students indicate acceptance of before enrolling. The section on “Protest and Demonstration Guidelines” states the following:

“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.”

The Guidelines describe acceptable means of protest, such as picketing, as well as unacceptable means, such as interrupting or halting a lecture, debate or any public forum. To prevent similar episodes in the future—something we must do—these standards of conduct will be upheld and enforced.

The University bears 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, so that this kind of episode does not recur.

Given the extraordinary nature of these events and the multiple strands requiring review and discussion, I will establish a Committee on the Events of October 29th that will be charged with making findings and recommendations to me in two phases. In the first phase, which will conclude quickly, the Committee will review the activities and circumstances related to the October 29 lecture and identify issues that may have contributed to the disruption.

In similar episodes that have occurred at Brown in the past, students who violated the Code of Student Conduct have been asked to accept 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 and supportive environment for all of our students while upholding our deep commitment to the free exchange of ideas.

The Committee will include five members of the faculty, two undergraduates and one graduate student and will receive staff support from the Offices of Student Life and General Counsel. I will appoint the members of the Committee in consultation with the Faculty Executive Committee and relevant student groups.

It is clear from the many conversations that I have been part of over the last week that the Brown community has many issues to work through together. I am encouraged by the spirit of the discussion that is now taking place on campus. Students, faculty and staff are engaged in necessary and intense conversations about issues of race, class and privilege; the value of protest in driving social change; and the importance of free expression on a college campus. These conversations underscore the importance of the free and open exchange of ideas around society’s most difficult questions, and they make us stronger as a community.

Sincerely,

Christina H. Paxson

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