November 4, 2013

KUHN: Was the Brown Student Protest Justified?

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Last Tuesday, New York City Police Chief Raymond Kelly’s lecture at Brown University was cancelled by the vociferous protests of students who disapproved of the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy Chief Kelly defends. Participating students defended their protest as an expression of their First Amendment right to free speech. However, the bullying nature of their protest — whose goal, according to one of the protest’s organizers, “was for the lecture to be cancelled from the beginning” — renders the logical consistency of the First Amendment defense suspect. The First Amendment is inherently compromised by attempts to stifle dialogue, so the decision to drown out Chief Kelly’s lecture comes across as a cowardly and dangerous distortion of a sacred liberal benchmark. On the other hand, Chief Kelly’s decision to endure a prolonged question and answer period from a historically progressive student body suddenly becomes more plaudit-worthy in the flattering glow of the students’ blazing hypocrisy.

The “First Amendment defense” isn’t worth considering further. But is there philosophical precedent for justifying the student protest? Short of a brazen rejection by school authorities to exercise their discretion in inviting important speakers to public forums (a wholesale opting out of the system, effectively an anarchic gesture), is there any way to interpret the protest as a legitimate check on a university administration run astray?  Assessing the protest as an instance of civil disobedience is instructive in this direction.

Civil disobedience can, in democratic societies, be a justified method of addressing grievances. Loosely, civil disobedience entails the conscious, public violation of a mandate in order to bring about public and legislative reevaluation of the basis for that mandate. It can only occur when the normal accepted channels of exercising representative power within the democratic system have failed to produce a desired outcome for a certain segment of the population. But the civilly disobedient cannot claim legitimacy for their movement just based on the fact that their state or organization fails to accommodate it. Civil disobedience relies on the premise that in publicly violating a mandate, the violators will bring the underlying logic (or lack thereof) of that mandate into sharp relief for the general public and legislative authority. Thus, civil disobedience can only exist in systems where there is an expectation of give-and-take or consultation between the constituent and decision-making bodies. In systems in which founding documents have been agreed upon as basic guides for the subsequent creation of policies, a citizen is justified in seeking to ameliorate inconsistencies between the spirit of the institution and the letter of the law. Reform, not revolution, must be the ultimate goal of the civilly disobedient.

So, let’s examine the protest in the context of these markers of civil disobedience. Although universities aren’t directly “democratic” bodies, their constituent members can reasonably expect to be able to influence university policies and actions. Further, in actively selecting from a vast array of post-high school opportunities, students explicitly endorse the university’s founding creed and modus operandi with a level of agency that born citizens in real states can never attain. Therefore, it is possible to argue that students can fully expect to enjoy the right of redress when they feel that the university is not acting in accordance with its stated purpose. Clearly, in general, Brown students have the right to practice civil disobedience.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that this was not an instance of civil disobedience for two reasons. First, the university was responsive to the concerns of the protester movement — protester grievances were taken seriously and were reasonably accommodated. In order to assuage student concerns that Chief Kelly would be given free, unchallenged rein to flog what some believe to be a racist policy, university officials expanded the question-and-answer period at the expense of his lecture. Students seeking to ensure that Brown, as a leading American university founded in the liberal spirit of debate and inquiry, was honoring that founding creed should have been placated by the gesture. But concerns about opportunities for dialogue were clearly secondary to the protesters, who ultimately sought to drown out a controversial opinion they disagreed with. In the liberal marketplace of ideas, the best endorsement of your enemy’s opinion, the action most likely to give a shaky argument new luster, is to forcibly drive it out of the realm of civil discourse. To do so is antithetical to the liberal tradition Brown seeks to honor; the censorship sought by the protesters who interrupted Chief Kelly’s lecture would have gratified information-fearing McCarthyists, in spirit if not in message. By no means do I endorse the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactic — it’s illiberal, illegal and ultimately undermines police legitimacy in a way that makes communities less safe and less willing to obey the law. I applaud students who challenge perceived injustice, and the bravery, misplaced as it was, that it took to stand up to such a powerful man and institution. But I hope this ugly incident can help remind progressives everywhere that, from a distance, anyone can look like they’re rallying for the Tea Party.