A firestorm erupted at Brown University last week after The Brown Daily Herald student newspaper printed a controversial advertisement denouncing the idea that black descendants of slaves should be paid reparations.
The full-page ad, titled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea — and Racist Too,” was written by conservative commentator David Horowitz and sent to 47 student newspapers across the country.
Most papers that were approached, including The Cornell Daily Sun, refused to print the ad. Horowitz’s message provoked strong responses at the nine schools where it appeared in print, however. Three schools speedily issued apologies, but The Herald was not among them.
Accusing The Herald of supporting a right-wing hate-monger, student activists at Brown trashed 4,000 copies of the paper, nearly the entire day’s press run.
The theft followed a meeting the previous night between a coalition of mostly minority groups at Brown and Herald staffers. During this time the coalition demanded that the paper donate the money received for running the advertisement to campus minority organizations and give the coalition a free page of ad space for a counter-argument to the controversial ad.
Twice the newspaper refused, although it made its opinion pages and web site available to critics and supporters of the ad and of the newspaper’s decision to publish it.
Brown’s interim president, Sheila Blumstein, backed The Herald’s decision to run the advertisement and said the theft would be investigated.
“Consistent with its commitment to the free exchange of ideas,” Blumstein said in an official statement. “The University recognizes and supports The Herald’s right to publish any material it chooses, even if that material is objectionable to members of the campus community.”
Many students at Brown felt the administration’s response fell short of addressing campus grievances, and activists continued to rage over what they considered a racial indignity.
“This is not an issue of free speech,” Kohei Ishihara, a junior whom the protesters designated as their spokesperson, told The New York Times. “This is about profits. The Herald profited from the deliberate distortion of history.”
To facilitate a community-wide conversation over the issue, faculty, students and administrators met at a faculty-led forum last Wednesday.
“Intense but civil and well-attended,” was how Brown Prof. Cynthia Garcia-Coll, described the forum that she helped lead, in which approximately 200 students participated.
The forum, although closed to the press, was attended by The Herald’s editorial board. The discussion addressed how to balance freedom of speech with community responsibility, according to Garcia-Coll.
“Although many disparate views were represented, the consensus was that The Herald had the right to publish the ad, but that the paper made the wrong decision given the context of Brown,” she said.
“The coalition’s newspaper theft was an act of civil disobedience, but it was understandable given that our sense of community was so assaulted,” she added.
Another speaker at the faculty forum, Lewis R. Gordon, director of Brown’s Afro-American studies program, compared the publication of the ad to “spray-painting the word ‘nigger’ on a campus wall,” according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Gordon, who supported the students who trashed The Herald, wrote Blumstein saying that several students said they had been unable to eat or sleep for days following the publication of the ad.
“The ad wasn’t speech,” Gordon told The Chronicle. “It was a racial assault, and we should admit this.”
Even after the forum, Herald staffers continued to deny that the ad symbolized hate speech, and one columnist expressed frustration over how the forum failed to address the unjust actions of the coalition’s newspaper theft.
The president of the Providence chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Cliff Montiero, was quoted in The Providence Journal supporting The Herald.
“The ad is a wake-up call that freedom isn’t free,” Montiero said. “I don’t think it’s right for people to steal the newspaper … I think the freedom of the press needs to continue.”
Brown Prof. Michael Vorenberg, history, predicted that Horowitz deliberately designed the controversial ad to provoke the academic establishment and to elicit a chain reaction across liberal campuses.
Framing the ad in the context of his civil war and reconstruction class, Vorenberg told his students that it was “misinformed” and “an awful mischaracterization of emancipation.”
Horowitz, who characterized the academic establishment “a dictatorship of the left” and called the protesting students “campus fascists,” told The New York Times that “colleges should be stimulating discussions of these issues, not encouraging political rallies on behalf of one side of the issues.”
One such passage from the ad reads, “If not for the sacrifices of white soldiers a white American president who gave his life to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks in America would still be slaves.”
The ad goes on to say that black people have already received reparations in the form of “welfare benefits and racial preferences.” Black Americans enjoy a far better standard of living than their African counterparts, wrote Horowitz, who calls the idea of reparations “one more attempt to turn African-Americans into victims.”
When Horowitz’s provocative ad arrived in the mail, the staff at The Herald wasted little time deciding what it would do. “There was never a vigorous debate about whether we should run the ad,” Brooks King, editor-in-chief of The Herald, said in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “We have never refused to run an ad based on political content.”
The timing of the issue was critical. Flaring up during Black History Month, the controversy spread across the campus shortly after several Brown students had returned from a workshop at Columbia University about slavery reparations.
The clash also came shortly after Brown made headlines for a breakthrough in race relations: the university named Ruth Simmons as its next president, the first black person to be named president of an Ivy League university.
Simmons has refused to comment on the recent situation at Brown.
Garcia-Coll predicted that the recent controversy may have been a spill-over from past grievances.
“Publishing the ad was a violation of community rules. It brought attention to an issue that we have needed to address for a long time,” Garcia-Coll said, recalling that there had been a number of race-related incidents at Brown within the past year.
Some faculty members at Brown are demanding that the administration undertake a research study on institutional reform.
Characterizing the atmosphere at Brown as “very tense, especially for students of color,” Garcia-Coll did not think that the controversy would easily die down when students return next week from spring break. Everybody is so frustrated, Garcia-Coll said. “It’s such a shame.”
Archived article by Jennifer Roberts