When Molly Little and her accomplice (known only as Colonel Custard) pelted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman with pies during his Earth Day lecture last week at Brown University (click here to watch on YouTube), they re-opened a longstanding dialogue about radical protest and free speech on College Hill.
From Brown students to conservative columnist Michelle Malkin (who deemed the pie-throwers “enviro-nitwits”), commentators have portrayed the incident as the latest example of liberal intolerance at Brown. But Little says that she and the Colonel aimed to provoke that very notion.
“What we were trying to draw attention to is the subtle hegemony of free speech on a campus where certain speakers — mainstream and right-wing speakers — get brought to campus and other voices aren’t heard or are silenced,” she told me.
Some people, even ostensibly similarly minded liberals, strongly disagree.
As local peace activist Mark Stahl said in a statement e-mailed to reporters this week, “I totally reject this action as an absurd and unwelcome attack on freedom of speech. I wonder how we would react if a speaker at one of our peace events was peppered by a pie. If we don’t support the principles of free speech and civil discourse, then we might as well shut down our organizations.”
Stahl believes that stunts such as those performed by the pie-tossers are “particularly counter-productive when the increasing inroads against civil liberties in this country make it all the more important for us to take a principled stand in support of freedom of speech.”
This was not the first time that radical activists at Brown employed bold antics to voice their disapproval.
In 2001, after the Brown Daily Herald printed a notorious David Horowitz advertisement, entitled, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks — and Racist, Too!”, an enraged student coalition demanded that the Herald apologize, donate the $725 cost of the ad to minority groups, and offer a free full-page ad to discuss related issues. When Herald editors refused, the coalition replaced 4000 copies of the paper with fliers proclaiming that the editors were not responsible to their campus constituents.
In spring 2003, during a speech at Brown by Defense Department advisor Richard Perle, students silently unfurled a banner from the Salomon Center balcony, reading: “You’re a war criminal, Mr. Perle.”
In the wake of these controversies, Brown President Ruth J. Simmons resolutely invested in intellectual diversity and proclaimed, “Unchallenged opinion is a dark place that must be exposed to light.”
Still, Little does not stand alone in doubting the substance of intellectual diversity at Brown. So did she succeed in reopening this dialogue, or did she merely embarrass the university? “A lot of people are talking about whether this was outrageous, or justified, or laudable, or totalitarian,” Little says. “It’s been successful in that people are having that conversation at least in some form, even if it involves getting really angry at us.”
Although Friedman declined to comment for this article, YouTube footage — since removed from the web — revealed his clear displeasure at the incident. What about the displeasure inherent in witnessing such a public humiliation? Perhaps it is possible to decry a disrespectful action while enjoying a healthy giggle about its obvious absurdity. That is, unless you’re the one who’s ducking the pies.