Photo: Apavio via Wikimedia Commons
Last year Brown University won a Campus Muzzle for the “heckler’s veto” students exercised at a planned lecture by New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly in October 2013. Following this embarrassing spectacle that made national news, chastened university president Christina Paxson declared Brown’s commitment to free speech in an open letter to the community. But events in this past academic year suggest that Brown’s definition of “free” is severely lacking.
In November 2014, Brown’s Janus Forum hosted a debate titled, “How Should Colleges Handle Sexual Assault?” The panelists were two feminist journalists on opposite sides of the political spectrum: Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy, the latter of whom has described herself a “rape culture” skeptic.
Student activists were outraged by the inclusion of McElroy in what was billed, after all, as a debate. These students argued that the presence of a “rape denialist” on campus would make them feel “unsafe.” Until the day of the debate, students called for the silencing of a speaker whose opinions merely differed from their own; The Brown Daily Herald characterized the position of these students as “feel[ing] attacked by viewpoints.”
Rather than reaffirm the notion that Brown should encourage robust discourse on even the most sensitive of topics, President Paxson announced in a campus-wide email that a more “factual” event titled, “The Research on Rape Culture,” would be held across campus at exactly the same time as the scheduled debate. The message? Skip the discomfort and attend the event that will make you feel “safe.”
Paxson didn’t exactly “muzzle” anyone; Valenti and McElroy duked it out in front of students who chose to attend the Janus Forum over the counter-program. But nor did Paxson vigorously defend her earlier-stated notion of Brown’s commitment. So we are choosing to recognize this cleverly disguised move to “protect” Brown’s undergraduates from disturbing ideas (and, presumably, from the goals of a liberal arts education) and present Brown University with the first-ever “Muffle Award,” for clearly communicating to its students that dissent will be met with institutional disapproval.