Penn ranked a top college for free speech

The University was the only Ivy League school to make the list

· September 6, 2012, 9:42 pm

Penn is among the top seven colleges for free speech in the nation, according to a report released Wednesday by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The annual ranking of speech-friendly campuses recognizes the policies different schools have on the books to protect student expression, as well of those schools’ enforcement of their policies.

Penn was the only Ivy League institution to make the top seven list, which was presented in no particular order. Other schools included the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary and James Madison University.

Penn and Dartmouth College are also the only two Ivy League schools currently ranked as “green light” institutions by FIRE. Green light distinctions are awarded by FIRE to schools that do not maintain any policies that seriously imperil speech on campus.

“First and foremost, Penn has maintained policies that maintain freedom of expression on its campus,” FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley said. “Penn’s a private university and it doesn’t have to protect student speech, but it makes a point to do so.”

Shibley attributed some of this to the presence of history professor Alan Kors at Penn. Kors is a co-founder of FIRE, and chaired the free speech organization’s board of directors for a number of years.

“I think a lot of credit has to go to him,” Shibley said. “It’s a tribute to his influence that Penn’s been a great place for student speech.”

Despite FIRE’s ranking, Penn does not have a tension-free history when it comes to free speech issues on campus.

The University gained significant attention in 1993 during the “water buffalo” controversy, in which a student was charged with violating the University’s racial harassment policy for shouting, “Shut up, you water buffalo!” at a group of black sorority sisters.

The charges were later dropped, but Penn’s handling of the free speech issues involved in the case came under criticism.

More recently, Penn allowed the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions conference to take place on campus in February, despite heated political rhetoric leading up to the event.

“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,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said at the time. “The university must be a place of unfettered debate and the free exchange of ideas.”

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