Recently, former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was asked to speak at Brown University about the controversial policy of “Stop and Frisk,” which he had helped to implement during the Bloomberg Administration. Before the former commissioner could speak, however, Brown University students interrupted the lecture and prevented Mr. Kelly from making any remarks whatsoever. With these recent events in mind, the Editorial Board believes that our campus community — both students and administration — should recommit itself to upholding the principles of free speech in accordance with the University’s broader educational mission. In stark contrast to the events at Brown University, a recent event on our campus demonstrates proper academic discourse in line with the principles of free speech.
The Anscombe Society recently invited Ryan Anderson to give a talk defending a traditional view of marriage. Student protesters did not interrupt Mr. Anderson during his talk. Instead, the protesters voiced their objections by asking productive questions during the Q&A session. Lacking fighting words, incitement or heckling, the ensuing discussion enabled students on both sides of the debate to hear each other’s arguments, hopefully increasing mutual understanding. We believe that the University community should model future speaking events on the paradigm of respectful discourse manifest at the Anderson event.
The board believes that speaker events must be conducted according to the following principle: Speakers have a right not merely to speak but also be heard. It follows that protests should be held in manners that respect the speaker’s right to be heard and that help to further dialogue instead of stalling it outright. The University’s treatment of protests in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities is consistent with the aims of free speech and respect for dialogue, and we commend the University for the policy.
The board does believe that there should be a few guidelines in place for selecting speakers to come to campus. First and foremost, an invited speaker must have a topic and view that is appropriate to an academic forum and that advances the educational mission of the University. “Fighting words” and incitements to violence are clearly inappropriate. There should also be some minimum of student interest to warrant bringing a speaker to campus; such interest can serve as an informal test of determining whether the speaker will advance community knowledge or will be speaking on a subject that students deem relevant. If the University or student group is to fund the costs of the speaker (i.e. traveling expenses), the lecture must be open to opposing voices, respectful, and in the advancement of intellectual or cultural endeavors.
Some may worry that upholding a clear prerogative for free speech for invited guests may lead to the hosting of speakers with views that flagrantly offend general decency (e.g., racial supremacists). However, the board maintains that it is important to hear minority perspectives: members of the community capable of independent thought will not be swayed by an irrational, indecent viewpoint. Rather, such a viewpoint should and will be discredited on its merits alone. It is for individuals — not a higher authority — to decide what is creditable and what is not. The board also does not believe that the prestige and marginal benefit a speaker gains from speaking on campus to be significant enough to warrant banning them from speaking.
Free speech is the cornerstone of intellectual enlightenment and educational advancement. Without the ability to openly debate an issue with all viewpoints present and able to defend themselves, an educational institution risks becoming a farce. The marketplace of ideas works best when that marketplace is truly free. We hope the University will continue to protect free speech on this campus and that students will uphold the importance of respectful discourse.