protests at Brown University

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Fri Mar 23 18:51:32 MST 2001

[ bounced html format from "George Snedeker" <snedeker at>

Louis Gordon, an African American philosophy professor at Brown
University has been under attack for his actions in response to the
anti-reperations ad which appeared in the student paper. here is
Prof. Gordon's statement to the press explaining his actions.

                                               23 March 2000

It has come to my attention that my actions over the past week have
been grossly misrepresented by some members of the media and the Brown
University community.  I am accused of being an enemy of free speech,
of saying things like "the First Amendment is antiquated. . . ."  I
have no recollection of saying such a thing.  Here are the facts.  I
was contacted by students who felt that there was not support for them
at Brown because of the Acting President publically condemning them
last week without also including a condemnation of the racist assaults
and rebuffs they had received prior to and after the incident.  They
wanted to meet with the Press but felt there was no safe environment
in which to do so.  So, I offered a room in the office building over
which I am director.  The students met with the Press but refused to
be filmed in order to maintain their anonymity.  I was concerned that
they were not filmed because they were a multiracial group of students
(Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians), but the national coverage was
constructing them as exclusively Black and "Black Extremists."  In my
interview with ABC and New England Cable and Fox, I said that what
concerned me was that the ad was both hate speech and a solicitation
for financial support to develop antiblack ad space.  I was concerned
that it would embolden white supremacists and antiblack racists.

The next day I received hate phone calls, hate mail, and the situation
has become such that I have to take precautions for the safety of the
staff in Afro-American Studies at Brown and my family.  I subsequently
found out that Black students were being harassed by virtue of the
mistaken claim that the "coalition" consisted only of Black
students-in spite of, again, the fact that it was multiracial.  In
other words, I was concerned that Black students were becoming
scapegoats for whatever other hostilities people outside of the Brown
community may have against, perhaps, Brown's identity as a "liberal
institution" or against the presence of Black people at Brown.

I spoke out against the harm suffered by Black students and staff
since the emergence of this conflict, and I stressed the need for the
Brown community to defend their right to assemble, work, and in some
cases (e.g., students) live on this campus.  I received many letters
of support from Brown faculty who were, however, afraid of speaking
publically.  In other words, tenured professors were afraid of voicing
their opinion in public!  Thus, I became the only public critic of the
university's handling of the situation, until March 21st, where
another faculty member came out as a voice of dissent.

My public position is that what happened last week reflects both
questions of the parameters of responsible versus irresponsible
activities on the part of the press and the question of racism.  I was
also concerned that the public spaces at Brown were being bullied into
white spaces versus spaces for the entire Brown community regardless
of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class.  I am concerned that
some critics of my actions defend newspapers, television, and
radio-media through which funds to purchase time are costly-over
another important free speech issue: rights of assembly.  People who
cannot afford, as Horowitz was able, to purchase space to air their
points of view rely only on places of assembly with the hope of
coverage from the other venues.  I am also concerned that Horowitz has
been presented by many of my critics as a "minority" voice when in
fact the position that Black people should not receive reparations is
a majority position.  The distinction between a minority version of a
majority opinion and a racial minority, for instance, was blurred in
the conflict.

I have become a scapegoat on these matters.  No matter what I say
publically, I am attacked as an enemy of free speech-as the continued
flurry of derisive mail attest.  The record is that I am being
attacked by such critics for exercising my right to disagree with
them.  In effect, they attack me because I do not share their point of
view.  Free speech for them seems to mean only their point of view.

The Constitution protects free speech and our right to assemble.
There is also an equal protection clause.  The events that have
unfolded are clear indications that racism is still such that equal
protection of Black people is still in the making.  Finally, I should
like to make a statement on the forum held on March 22, 2000.  The
Dean of the College organized the forum to address the fragmentation
of the Brown community and affirm that the campus is not meant to be
for "whites only."  He also wanted an environment in which the members
of the school paper, the coalition, the rest of the Brown community
(faculty, deans, workers) can meet and speak honestly without threat.
That I have been so severely rebuked for simply demanding both an
affirmation of free speech and a condemnation of racism signaled to
him and the other organizers how nasty the situation was and there was
fear that no one would speak out from such threats.  My role in the
organization of the panel of experts was to demand that it include
white faculty with diverse views on these issues.  That is what was
assembled, and that is what we had last night, a panel designed to
articulate the issues at stake since there were so many heated
positions floating around the campus.

The Dean of the College told the Press that they could have a press
conference after the panel, but there was concern about their presence
harassing people who may not have wanted to be on camera or for their
identities to be made public.  The students met.  The Dean and others
came out afterward.  And the Press wasn't there.  They waited in the
rain, and then went home.  The next day, I was shocked to find out
that a student from the campus paper went on a talk show and imputed
to me inflammatory words that I simply did not say.  That student's
lie stimulated an environment of fascist, violent reaction that
included sending a black student a threatening letter with a picture
of a mutilated black child; countless telephone and email threats of
violence to black students; and my receiving an intensified rush of
hate mail.  The circumstance exemplifies my early observation that
hate words are not in the spirit of speech but harm.  I subsequently
met with several stations.  I am answering the many phone calls from
press officials.  It is taking me time.  I have, after all, as do many
other professors, obligations to my family, my students, my
colleagues, and, through my effort to defend the right of assembly and
speech for those in the genuine minority, the community.

Now, to my chagrin, I am being vilified.  I am being accused of things
I did not say, and I am being attacked for not only being a minority,
but a minority who speaks out and has taken the risk of trying my best
to assure that students can assemble peaceably at Brown with the
assurance that it is an institution in which each of them is welcomed
as a full member.


Lewis R. Gordon
Professor of Afro-American Studies, Religious Studies, and Modern
Culture and Media

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