Underlying the heated political discussion surrounding the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions conference last weekend was an issue that has long been intertwined with the University’s history: the First Amendment.
However, the BDS conference is not the first time that controversial speakers brought to campus by student groups have caused tension and debate over freedom of speech.
From student protests during the Vietnam War era to various racially charged disputes, Penn is no stranger to questions of what types of speech it will protect — and where, if ever, it should draw the line.
BDS and beyond
In the weeks leading up to BDS, students and faculty debated the administration’s policy to allow the conference on campus.
In a Feb. 2 Daily Pennsylvanian guest column, Penn President Amy Gutmann and Board of Trustees Chair David Cohen wrote that, while the University disagreed with the positions espoused by BDS, “we recognize and respect their right to open expression.”
Penn Friends of Israel President and College sophomore Noah Feit said he was pleased that Penn allowed BDS to take place on campus.
“It sends a clear message that we’re open for free speech, and I hope it will extend to everyone,” he said.
While Feit disagrees with the political message behind BDS, he added that he does not think it should have been censored.
“It’s an issue that’s really important and deserves to be debated in the academic setting,” PennBDS member and College freshman Clarissa O’Conor added. “There was no hate speech whatsoever on the part of the organizers or the people who attended the conference.”
Others, however, have said that Penn should not have allowed the BDS conference to take place.
“Allowing such rhetoric on campus amounts to an implicit, if not an explicit, endorsement of BDS,” 1958 Wharton graduate Eugene Jaffe wrote in an email.
Looking back, previous Penn administrations have also had to address outcry over events dealing with free speech and sensitive topics.
In 1988, for example, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan — who is known for his radically anti-Semitic views — was invited to speak at Penn by 10 campus groups.
“Many people harshly criticized the administration for allowing him to come on campus and preach hate speech,” University Archives and Records Center Director Mark Frazier Lloyd said.
Soon before the speech took place, Sheldon Hackney — who was Penn’s president at the time of the Farrakhan visit — told The New York Times that “I’m hoping it will be an occasion for some educational discussions of race relations on campus. But it could be confrontational and arouse a lot of emotion in which nothing constructive can take place.”
Racial controversy also came to the fore of discussion at Penn during the 1993 “water buffalo incident.”
In the incident, Eden Jacobowitz, a freshman at the time, was charged with racial harassment under Penn’s Code of Conduct for shouting, “Shut up, you water buffalo!” at a group of black sorority sisters who were making noise outside his room in a high-rise College House. The charges — which were later dropped by the women and the Office of Student Conduct — brought Penn’s racial and sexual harassment speech policies under fire, according to Lloyd.
The incident “marked the beginning of an awareness of speech codes on campus and its impact on students … In the years since then, Penn has done a really good job of reforming its policies to be protective of student speech,” said Samantha Harris, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization that defends students’ free expression rights.
However, Penn’s free expression policy was once again brought into question in 2006, when the OSC brought charges against an undergraduate who took photos of two students having sex against a high-rise dormitory window. Although the charges were later dropped, the University drew criticism for its handling of the case from FIRE and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
How Penn stacks up
Despite these past disputes, Penn today is considered a leader among universities in promoting freedom of speech and expression.
Penn currently has a “green light” ranking from FIRE. Receiving this highest possible ranking indicates that Penn’s written policies have been found to promote unrestricted free speech.
“Although private schools are not bound by the First Amendment the way state schools are, private universities are required to uphold the promises they make to their students,” Harris said.
Harris added that many universities routinely violate their speech codes, citing the recent firing of a Harvard University professor who expressed controversial views about Muslims in an Indian newspaper as an example of free speech restrictions at peer institutions.
“Academic freedom is fundamental to the central value of a university, and academic freedom demands that universities protect freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech,” Gutmann said. “The university must be a place of unfettered debate and the free exchange of ideas.”
Last year, FIRE named Penn one of the seven best colleges and universities in the country for freedom of speech. Among other Ivy League schools, only Dartmouth College also made the list.
A legacy of activism
As Penn’s speech codes have evolved over the years, so have the causes that Penn students have chosen to speak out about.
In the 1960s and 1970s, students and faculty organized anti-war rallies on College Green and protested local issues like the construction of Meyerson Hall and the University City Science Center. More recently, campus activism has taken form in the Occupy movement — through OccupyPenn’s teach-ins outside Van Pelt Library, as well as Occupy Philadelphia’s demonstrations inside Huntsman Hall on Oct. 21.
The issue of race relations has also continued to play a role in campus discourse, with last year’s silent protest against racism on College Green as the latest in a history of race-based discussions.
For History professor and FIRE co-founder Alan Kors, Penn has come a long way in its protection of freedom of speech over the decades.
“As long as Penn continues to protect freedom of expression with no double standards, which I believe it is currently doing, we all can and should live with speech we find wrong or wicked, to which the best response is further speech, legal protest and both intellectual and moral witness,” he wrote in an email. “A university should be a place that encourages debate.”