MEDANSKY: Honoring speech?

Little Fables

When Ray Kelly arrived at Brown, a crowd of protestors greeted him. The New York Police Department commissioner had been scheduled to deliver a Tuesday lecture on “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City,” but after roughly 30 minutes of raucous uninvited audience participation, administrators chose to cancel the event. Protestors called Kelly, the architect of New York City’s notorious stop-and-frisk program, a terrorist and a fascist; some posters even likened him to Hitler. As for Kelly, he deemed his interlocutors anti-intellectuals — “I thought this was the academy,” he said to the crowd — before leaving the lectern.

marissa_medansky_by_madeleine_wittAn online edition of the Brown Daily Herald, which has since published over 25 opinion pieces on the subject, suggests that Tuesday’s incident has prompted mixed reactions, many of which were aired in-person in a community forum held Wednesday evening on Brown’s campus. It’s clear, on one level, that the protestors have a point. Kelly’s stop-and-frisk policies, which were deemed unconstitutional in August by a U.S. District Court judge, amount to nothing less than a regime of racial profiling. Some students argued Kelly’s presence on campus implied tacit approval for those policies.

Still, I’m inclined to agree with Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, who shared her take in an open letter to the Brown community. Paxson emphasized that while discourse and dissent are welcome, “protest that infringes on the rights of others is simply unacceptable.” The open exchange of ideas is essential in life, academic or otherwise.

Here at Yale, free expression is similarly paramount. The 1975 Woodward Report established the University’s “overriding” commitment to free speech. A page on the Yale College website, aptly titled “Freedom of Expression,” extends that sentiment. It reads: “When you encounter people who think differently than you do, you will be expected to honor their free expression, even when what they have to say seems wrong or offensive to you.”

But what does it mean “to honor” the expression of others? Some examples are clear violations of these principles — like, I think, Tuesday’s incident at Brown. To deny your peers the opportunity for discourse is, at best, a disrespect to them, and at worst a disrespect to academia’s founding principles. Still, the Brown students that heckled Kelly argued that they, in fact, were the real proponents of free expression on campus. They said their protests spoke in solidarity with many victims of racial profiling silenced by Kelly’s policies. They have a point — and that’s a conversation worth having.

Even in the clearest of cases, a kind of murkiness can emerge when we wonder what it really means to “honor” the expression of others. Back in February 2012, during a lecture by a professor against gay marriage, students interrupted the beginning of a lecture with a brief “kiss-in,” then exited the classroom with chants of “one in four, maybe more.” Did this infringe on the rights of anyone present? Certainly not. Did this “honor” the free expression of the speaker? I’d say “yes,” but others might disagree, citing issues with the tactfulness of the tactics used. Again, that’s a conversation worth having.

Here’s a third, though well-worn, example — last fall, during the presidential search process, the search committee held an open forum. The members of the committee had hoped to learn more about what undergraduates wanted to see in the next University president: a leader in the sciences, perhaps, or a humanist? Instead, students expressed grievances with the procedural aspects of the search process, thus undermining the efficacy of the forum. “What was important was not allowing the forum to go the way [the organizers] wanted,” one student told the News. Clearly, these students infringed on no rights. But did they “honor” the free expression of those present? I’m not so sure — my interpretation of free expression looks at the spirit of the law, not the letter. Free expression should mean more than allowing others to express their views; we should strive for a good-faith exchange of ideas. Others might have other views on what free expression means — and that conversation is worth having.

Yet how often do we have these conversations? Without a Ray Kelly incident of our own, it can be easy to dismiss the activism that still exists on Yale’s campus. Yet student activists respond to ignorant posts on Yale Facebook groups and attend rallies outside of G-Heav — our culture of activism might be less subtle than Brown’s, but it is still thriving, and no less legitimate.

Variations on that point have been made before, so allow me to conclude with a final, more original suggestion. After Tuesday’s incident, Brown University administrators organized a community forum to discuss the meaning of free expression on campus. Over 600 students attended. President Salovey should organize a similar event. Far too often, the administration has chosen to be reactive, only speaking out on contentious issues after they become national controversies. But on the issue of free expression, we can’t afford to be reactionary.

Marissa Medansky is a junior in Morse College. Contact her at marissa.medansky@yale.edu.

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