Brown confronts ‘safe space’ criticisms, schedules free speech forum

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As it started the school year last week, Brown University sought to confront mounting criticism that it had fostered the development of “safe spaces” on campus where students would be shielded from controversial opinions on race, sex, or other topics deemed to be politically sensitive, offensive, or otherwise off-limits.

In a Washington Post op-ed, and later in her Brown convocation speech, Brown President Christina Paxson denied that there was even a thing as “safe spaces” on campus.

“Brown got a query from a reporter just last week asking if we have a designated list of safe spaces on campus, and if there is one in every building. What on earth are they referring to? Idea-free zones staffed by thought police, where disagreement is prohibited? I can assure you that there are no such places at Brown. Our students would not stand for them,” Paxson said in her address.

She denied that the university is “coddling” its students and protecting them from “ideas and perspectives they don’t want to hear.”

“I don’t share the view that American college students want to be protected from ideas that make them uncomfortable. Just the opposite. Over the past few years, our students have addressed topics that make many people very uncomfortable indeed — racism, sexual assault, religious persecution. These are some of the toughest problems facing society today, and we do not shy away from them,” Paxson said, according to a transcript of her remarks made available to the media.

Brown became entangled in controversy last fall after a student-group organized a debate about campus sexual assault between radical feminist Jessica Valenti and libertarian feminist Wendy McElroy, who has written about the politicization of the term “rape culture.” Some students were offended that McElroy was being given a platform. In response, they set up a “safe space” for people who might find comments “triggering” — a nurturing place to recuperate with cookies, calming music, play doh and pillows, as well as trained trauma counselors.

This was not the first time Brown has been embroiled in controversy over free speech.

In 2001, the Brown Daily Herald published a paid op-ed from conservative pundit David Horowitz contesting the notion of slavery reparations. The advertisement set off a firestorm on campus that culminated in the theft of the entire press run of the student newspaper.

As the controversy continued to fester, a planned appearance on campus by Horowitz was canceled.

The highly charged campus atmosphere seemed to dissipate for a time: in 2003, Horowitz spoke on campus and the new president, Ruth Simmons, pledged her commitment to academic freedom. Simmons, who was appointed as president in 2001, served until 2011. Paxson is her successor.

Paxson has previously been criticized for paying lip service to the importance of freedom of speech while doing little to take action to safeguard or it those campus organizations that advocate most strongly for the free exchange of ideas.

In 2013 student activists flooded a lecture hall where now-former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly — chief architect of the department’s stop-and-frisk policy — was scheduled to speak and shouted him down. The event had to be canceled.

The incident was featured in a highly critical documentary released this summer by Rob Montz, a Brown alum who is a filmmaker at the Motion Picture Institute and a former writer and director at Reason, a libertarian magazine. “This is not the Brown I know. This is students weaponizing victimhood to stifle debate and things have gotten steadily worse since then,” Montz said in the documentary.

The campus is set to confront the issue head-on later this week in a forum that asks whether free speech should be limited on campus. The event, which will be hosted by the Political Theory Project on Thursday, Sept. 15, will feature opposing viewpoints from Stanley Fish, a professor at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City, and Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The event is free and open to the public.