When Wharton junior Luis De Castro arrived at Penn, his freshman hall developed into a tight-knit group of friends. But when a handful of his hallmates found out that he was pro-life, their relationship took a “very distinct 180,” he said.
Like all Penn students, De Castro’s free speech is protected by the First Amendment, as well as Penn’s open expression guidelines. Universities like Penn are regarded as havens of intellectual debate with a welcoming attitude toward diverse viewpoints. But students like De Castro — whose political or religious views are in the minority compared to those of Penn’s predominantly liberal student body — sometimes feel that free speech is limited by an unwillingness of their peers to hear and consider the views of others.
Penn’s administration has taken several steps to address informal student censorship of this kind. It has revised Penn’s to prevent the and accommodate the increasingly digital landscape of communication. The Campaign for Community, launched last spring, aims to foster conversations among students that will help them understand and respect others’ perspectives.
But students and professors agree that the problem is cultural — administrators can plan events or amend regulations, but only students determine how open they are to others’ ideas.
Free speech: Timely and
Penn’s administration does not lack in its commitment to free speech. Penn President Amy Gutmann, whose research focuses on political science, explained that open expression is “both timely and timeless,” and that it is a fundamental aspect of democracy, applying to students, faculty and staff.
“The university campus is incredibly important because freedom of expression is not only a reflection of individual rights but also productive of greater understanding across differences,” she said. “Penn has been recognized as a model of affording and encouraging and protecting freedom of expression.”
Unlike many universities, Penn has never withdrawn a commencement speaker’s invitation. It remains the only Ivy League school to have earned a “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, an award given to universities whose policies do not impede students’ right to free speech.
However, over the last few years, issues like race, sexual assault and mental health have shaken Penn’s campus, causing tension and creating the potential for students to dismiss others’ beliefs.
“I am reassured about the general condition about free speech and the support by the administration of the University at this time,” said History professor Alan Charles Kors, who has been vocal in his support of free speech for decades. “What I do find occasionally ominous is when students themselves call for censorship on their own campus.”
Kors cited the “apparently growing belief that everyone has a right not to be offended” as a possible reason for student censorship. Penn Law professor Stephanos Bibas, who chaired the 2014-2015 Committee on Open Expression, agreed.
This generation of college students, Bibas said, has grown up in an increasingly polarized world — prior to Penn, most have not encountered many perspectives that differ from their own. Media outlets have grown closer and closer to one side or the other. And when students arrive at college, some expect to avoid issues that make them uncomfortable.
However, Bibas believes that college is an opportunity to be exposed to diverse viewpoints.
“Part of your education here is getting used to dealing with positions you view as offensive,” he said. “We have to learn to disagree civilly because that’s what tolerance is about — tolerance is not about shutting down the people we disagree with.”
A cultural issue
However, the shutting down of beliefs is precisely what students often have to deal with, especially those who come from conservative political or religious backgrounds. De Castro, who identifies as a “moderate conservative” and is a member of the pro-life activist group Penn for Life, said that in his experience, students care more about what his views are than the reasoning behind them.
“People here at Penn, and people on most college campuses in general, they don’t really care about what you’re saying, the specifics of it — just what side of the discussion you fall on,” he said, adding that people have assumed that he is anti-contraception and anti-woman because of his beliefs.
At Penn, De Castro said, those with dominant viewpoints can easily avoid perspectives with which they disagree. And when they do encounter such beliefs, he added, it is often in a way that gives those perspectives a bad reputation.
“I think the biggest problem is that people aren’t exposed to points of view that disagree with them — the only times you see those points of views is when it’s the really extreme people yelling it,” he said.
For people like De Castro, whose beliefs are in the minority, such a culture can be toxic to learning. “If you have the impression that everyone at your school thinks you’re an evil person, you will not be comfortable,” he said.
College junior and Daily Pennsylvanian columnist Jeremiah Keenan provides a voice for students with certain conservative beliefs. He said he has often received pushback for expressing his views, such as an incident in which a girl refused to shake his hand.
“There are a lot of conservatives, more or less, who will stay underground at Penn,” Keenan said. “Because they’re not ready to pay that cost.”
Keenan explained that some career paths are already closed to him. Because of the opinion articles he has published online, he may not be able to get a tenured faculty position in a humanities or social science discipline. Already, students he does not know treat him differently because of his column.
“Sometimes they do, you know, take the time to give me a dirty look,” he said. “Of course it’s emotionally difficult.”
Bridging the gap
Students and professors agree that a culture of increased tolerance needs to stem from the student body itself.
“Students really need to bear witness to their desire to be treated as free adults who have the right to hear whoever they wish to hear on a college campus,” Kors said. “We cannot be a major university without free speech.”
Kors added that he would love to see an increase in the number of debates and discussions on campus that address contentious issues. “I would just encourage, as strongly as I could, that students who are in any way frightened about speaking their minds on campus to speak their minds, knowing that the institutions of the University and that the administration itself will stand in support of their freedoms.”
College junior Will Shirey, who described himself as “engaged with the conservative canon,” urged students to understand viewpoints that are different from their own, saying that “individual students should make it a point to really engage with the thoughts they disagree with.” Meanwhile, De Castro suggested that Penn force students of different ideological backgrounds to engage with each other through groups or classes.
Bibas said that Penn students should prepare themselves for the real world, which he said will be “tougher and ruder” than college. In order to do so, he suggested they more actively engage with students who hold different beliefs.
“As long as we can stay within civility — no threats, no force — all the other viewpoints need to be on the table and not suppressed,” Bibas said. “Because Penn would be a lot worse off if it were a monoculture.”
The bridging of gaps, Bibas added, can be accomplished through openmindedness and friendship.
“Host debates with people you vehemently disagree with,” he said. “Have dinner with them.”
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