Freedom of Speech? Not At Brown University

Two columns scrubbed from Brown's university newspaper raise serious questions about offense-taking, 'harm,' and freedom of speech.

10.10.15 12:50 PM ET

College is a time for participating in a number of head-scratching activities that make perfect sense inside the campus bubble, but appear utterly ridiculous and nonsensical to anyone in the “real world.”

Increasingly, this category of baffling behavior is less about booze, sex, or even standards of hygiene and much more about larger issues regarding the right to free speech and the value of expressing unpopular--even if it is ignorant or offensive--opinions.

Well-meaning attempts to foster an environment where everyone feels safe and no one is offended has led the main campus newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, to effectively override freedom of speech considerations.

Earlier this week, The Herald published two pieces written by columnist M. Dhazily Maier (which is a pen name) on October 5 and 6, both of which the editorial board has since denounced as "not only controversial but also deeply hurtful".

The first, "The White Privilege of Cows," runs with an editorial note that the column "did not meet The Herald’s standards for writing and clarity, and, more importantly, contained several factual inaccuracies regarding biology and race that cannot be corrected without compromising the argument of the entire column." 

Specifically, from the editors' perspective, the column relied on the "premise that race is a biological category," which has been "repeatedly disproven."

The second, "Columbian Exchange Day," was altogether removed fromThe Herald's website because the editors "made a decision not to publish" and claim it was in print versions due to the logistical error of not stopping the presses in time. 

As a result, of being "unable to stop its printing," the editorial board felt justified completely wiping the article from its website and removing the digital existence of its publication (PDF images of the article can still be found).

Maier's columns are indeed troubling, though more because they are are based on faulty and confusing logic. In one of my colleague’s words, she is “simply wrong.”

Her earlier column in the week, “The White Privilege of Cows," appears to be a meditation on how agriculture and livestock led to certain ethnic and racial groups to dominating others.

Here is a sample quote:

"Whenever I see a white college student, reeking of privilege, I recall the coincidence (or causal relationship) between white physical features and animal agriculture. It is still a question whether or not evolution endowed Eurasians with skills utilized to capitalize on the good luck of livestock animals, or whether Eurasian features just happen to be a poor man’s clue to agricultural history."

In "Columbian Exchange Day," Maier argued for her peers to ditch the anti-Columbus Day demonstrations led by student groups. 

According to her, students should, instead, use the day to honor the "Columbian Exchange Day,” which she defines as “the massive introduction of Old World organisms, culture and technology into the New World, as well as the game-changing introduction of New World plants and animals into the fields, gardens, minds and architecture of Old World Europe.”

The thrust of the argument can be summed up in the quote: “All Native Americans should celebrate Columbus Day, even if they have reservations about honoring Christopher Columbus himself.”

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Does the “Columbian Exchange Day” breeze over the death and destruction of native populations brought by Columbus’ arrival? You bet.

Could telling people to celebrate the invasion of indigenous communities be perceived as offensive, if not infuriating, to many, especially if they are members of one of the populations directly impacted by Columbus? Most certainly.

Even with these problems, should The Herald have taken retroactive steps to excise the “Columbian Exchange Day” from the internet and censor Maier’s voice? Absolutely not.

As perturbing as Maier’s writing is, Brown students’ efforts to censor their peers and restrict campus freedom of speech is far more galling and alarming, especially at a university that has prided itself on promoting diverse student voices. I say this as someone whose brother is currently an enrolled undergraduate and who is the daughter of two of its graduates.

Even student group Native Americans at Brown (NAB), which organizes a series of demonstrations against Columbus Day, felt taking down “Columbian Exchange Day” was a mistake.

“I don't think that was the best move they could have made,” Sierra Edd, a sophomore and designated speaker for NAB, told the Daily Beast. “It was public. It was printed that day, and people did read it. They should have it back online so that people can make the connection that The Herald was involved and they are accountable.”

The Herald did not respond to the Daily Beast’s request for comment, and individual editorial board members also declined to speak. 

While Maier said she would provide a comment, she had not provided one by press time.

We did get in touch with current undergraduate students and former staffers of The Herald. Far more concern and outrage was voiced over the paper’s decision to publish Maier’s columns in the first place, rather than the decision to add retroactive editor’s notes to one and pull the other completely.

Sam Heft-Luthy, a senior at Brown, felt the anger on campus was “generally towards The Herald’s decision to publish those columns.”

Heft-Luthy, who served as a staff writer on The Herald his first year of college, said “I think the feelings among the people I’m associated with is a frustration with the failure to realize the harmful nature of the columns.” 

However, he went out of his way to stress that he was “probably not the person to talk to about emotional investment” and that he “would feel more comfortable having a person of color talk about their reactions.”

When Heft-Luthy, who currently works on the Brown satirical publication,The Brown Noser, was asked about whether restricting columns of “harmful nature” creates freedom of speech concerns, he responded “I don’t know.”

“The idea of a publication being invested in free speech is talked about as a black-and-white issue. For me, the idea of free speech is not a helpful mode for thinking about platforms of publishing,” Heft-Luthy said.

Edd concurred that freedom of speech was not a sufficient reason for printing Maier’s controversial columns.

“I think freedom of speech in general has a lot of problems because of power dynamics, just racially and otherwise, so you have to be cautious,” she said.

“I think freedom of speech in general is rhetoric that supports the erasure of minority students. Voices of minorities and people of color have been silenced for so long that once there is a voice for us, there’s more backlash. If a person of privilege or higher status did the same thing [and spoke out], it would just be considered freedom of speech.”

The uproar over Maier’s columns is not wholly surprising, since they both tackle race, which is so often a hotbed of controversy and complexity, especially on a college campus. 

In particular, many readers interpreted “The White Privilege of Cows” as advancing the argument that "Eurasians" may have evolved in a superior way to other groups. 

As one online reader noted in the comments section of the article "Maier suggests that white people possess evolutionarily endowed skills...that non-white people lack."

Heft-Luthy shared a statement from the collective of Asian/Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) at Brown. In it, AAPI denounces The Heraldbecause it “privileges writers who continue in the legacy of white supremacy, further marginalizing students already systemically oppressed by the University.”

The statement stresses that “no apology can sufficiently rectify the violence enacted by The Herald in silencing, speaking for, and erasing Native and Indigenous students.”

It is unclear what violence--at least in terms of the conventional physical sense--was enacted by the newspaper staff. But this level of outrage provides context, if not justification, for The Herald’s eagerness to remove “Columbian Exchange Day” altogether.

Heft-Luthy felt The Herald was not living up to its goal by running Maier’s column. “Ultimately, as someone invested in publishing, our duty is to use our voice to improve the world and providing a platform for speech we believe to be harmful is not part of that mission,” said Heft-Luthy.

Heft-Luthy defined “harmful” as “sitting within and furthering the ideology of racism, classism, and sexism” and “content that doesn’t engage critically in systems of oppression.”  

This fear of harm, especially when harm is effectively defined as not challenging oppression, appears to be considered a fine justification for limiting freedom of speech. Do undergrads not realize that they will be bombarded with neighbors colleagues, cable news that spout opinions they would deem “harmful.”

The desire for a campus free of potentially not-politically correct opinions appears to take precedence.

“A lot of people are talking about freedom of speech. I recognize there are many people in this nation who have these ideas. I think the problem is when you allow these ideas to have a venue,” Rakel Galeano, a sophomore at Brown, told the Daily Beast.

“When an institution like The Herald, the university’s oldest newspaper, posts this type of article, our comfort in this space is taken away,” Galeano said.

It’s hard to chastise the students when the Brown administration appeared unconcerned by the attempt to censor freedom of speech. 

The Herald has “been very transparent and forthcoming in talking about what they did,” Mark Nickel, the university’s interim director of news and communications, told the Daily Beast. He also forwarded an official school statement that, “The University fully supports efforts to ensure that the Brown campus community is respectful and inclusive.” 

Brown University is hardly the only institute of higher education where students took measure to remove or silence dissenting voices during this school year alone (and it’s only October).

In September, a group of students and young alumni at Weslyan University in Connecticut pushed for the school newspaper, The Argus, to lose its funding because it ran an op-ed that critically questioned the Black Lives Matter movement.

Earlier this week, in the irony of ironies, two speakers set to debate each other at Britain’s University of Manchester in an event called “From liberation to censorship: Does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?” were both disinvited. 

Lesbian second-wave feminist Julie Bindel was slated to debate Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay conservative who advocates for men’s rights. Each eventually got the boot from the Student Union, which had organized the debate.

The reason? “We are concerned for the safety of our students on the topic of this event,” said the Student Union.

As my colleague Lizzie Crocker wrote, “All of this demonstrates that if one’s views veer too far from accepted ideological doctrine, they aren’t just unwelcome, they’re unsafe.”

Perhaps the smartest piece currently available on The Herald’s website is a letter to the editor from Michael Lewitt, Brown University Class of 1979. 

In response to The Herald’s editor’s note about Maier’s columns, he writes:

If you publish garbage, let it be adjudged as such by the community. You are a newspaper not a censor, though you should maintain minimal standards particularly with respect to certain ideas that the community has long ago determined have no place in liberal society, such as overt racism. But other ideas, such as so-called micro-aggressions, which are largely imaginary and frankly political agenda items, could be censured if you are not careful.

You are always better off allowing the community to act as the arbiter of ideas. That is what a free press does in a free society.