Little stands in the way of community members — who aren’t Penn students, faculty or staff — from trekking down Locust Walk, and usually no one thinks much about it.
But in light of repeated visits by controversial preachers on campus and protests against university speakers, The Daily Pennsylvanian looked into who exactly is allowed on Penn’s campus, and what they can do while they’re here.
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Until the summer of 1960, Locust Street was a thoroughfare open to vehicular traffic. A series of construction projects, not completed in their entirety until 1972, resulted in the closing of Locust Street to automobiles and the birth of Locust Walk as we know it today, a multi-block passageway open to all pedestrians.
Public pedestrians are able to occupy Locust Walk as long as they are not committing a hate crime, Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush said. In Pennsylvania, committing a hate crime means committing a crime against a person because of his or her “race, color, religion, national origin, or ancestry,” according to the website of the District Attorney of Philadelphia. Notably, crimes committed on the basis of gender and sexuality are not covered in this definition.
The website explains that perpetrators typically must act violently, threaten violence or be guilty of stalking or harassment. The state law defines harassment as a behavior that “communicates to or about such other person any lewd, lascivious, threatening or obscene words, language, drawings or caricatures.”
Rush said that the Christian preachers that made three appearances on campus in the 2016-17 school year meet none of the criteria for a hate crime offense.
“It’s a tricky little thing,” Rush said.
Preachers have previously set up signs on campus and chanted insults against “homos” as well as Catholics and Jews. She recalled students complaining that the preachers were terrifying them and insisting that their actions had to be illegal.
“It’s not,” Rush said.
She said that the preachers’ goal is to trigger angry listeners to physically assault them and cash in with a lawsuit. A recent panel featuring Nancy Baron-Baer, Philadelphia regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and 1978 Penn Law School graduate, and University Chaplain Rev. Chaz Howard urged students to avoid interaction with the preachers.
One loophole that can enable University police to remove the preachers from campus is if they violate, after a fair warning, what’s known as the “unreasonable noise level,” listed in the Office of the Provost’s Guidelines on Open Expression. This includes noises that exceed 85 decibels within 50 feet of a campus building. Most of the time, Rush said, the preachers comply with the sound ordinances because they do not want to leave.
College junior Rive Cadwallader said she doesn’t think preachers should be forced to leave campus.
“Creating a space for people to talk should never be a bad thing,” she said, provided that either party does not act violently. Cadwallader added that she expects a readily-assembled and clear opposition to the preachers every time they show up, as well as resistance to any type of restriction on freedom of expression.
On previous occasions, the Christian preachers on Penn’s campus have been drowned out by everything from Kanye West songs to
Christian Urrutia, a Wharton senior who uses the pronouns they and their, said the preachers on campus make them uncomfortable because they are queer. But Urrutia noted that barring these figures from speaking would set a precedent for increased censorship.
“Does that mean the men who come around selling chocolate bars or candy on our campus would be detained?” Urrutia asked.
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Preachers have not been the only figures on campus that have sparked debate over free speech and who should be allowed on Penn’s grounds. The many guest speakers that come to Penn tend to draw large crowds — but the audiences do not always agree with the speaker.
In April 2016, a group of protesters, including at least one who was Penn affiliated, shut down former CIA Director John Brennan’s talkat the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Penn Law Dean Theodore Ruger returned to the stage to explain the University’s freedom of expression policy during the event, but his voice was quickly drowned out as protesters continued to yell over him.
The administration sent out an email a few days after the incident urging students to remember that “freedom goes both ways.” Provost Vincent Price and Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum also called on students to familiarize themselves with the University’s Guidelines on Open Expression — though they did not directly address the protest or Brennan’s talk.
Urrutia saw the protests as an expression of free speech.
“I always get a little bit wary when people talk about students or protesters stifling freedom of speech because freedom of speech is about the government not saying what we can and cannot say,” they said.
Urrutia pointed out that the CIA director and other high-ranking government officials will always have a platform to have their voices heard.
“They [government officials] have the freedom to speak here, and they [protesters] have the freedom to shout over them,” they added.
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Dotting the ends of campus on Locust, Spruce and Walnut streets are clusters of homeless individuals that make up part of the city’s substantial homeless population. According to CBS Philly, the city’s 2016 annual Point in Time count found 705 people living on the streets.
Penn Police work with Project HOME and the University City District to relocate homeless near Penn’s campus, and Rush said that Penn Police do not chase homeless people off campus — they try to engage with them, determine their specific issues and help them.
Howard, who worked as a chaplain for Project HOME, also described homelessness as a cause “dear to his heart.” He thinks students should say hello to homeless people they dash by on the way to class instead of simply throwing a quarter in their cup.
Rush made clear that homelessness and disturbing the peace are very different matters.
“We don’t tolerate panhandling at all [on Penn’s campus],” she said.
However, Urrutia does not agree with this policy. They said that homeless people asking for money in or around campus buildings shouldn’t be removed.
But Urrutia said that they do endorse the restrictions on accessing campus buildings, which are currently in effect.
Rush said 10 years ago, there were fewer restrictions on who could access Penn libraries, which resulted in a high rate of theft. The greater restrictions imposed now require non-Penn community members to present photo identification, which is copied at the front desk. This system, Rush said, enabled Penn Police to quickly locate the individual who was carrying a machete in Van Pelt Library last year.
Cadwallader still thinks that Penn should remain as open as possible, despite certain safety threats.
“With a library which is literally and symbolically representative of knowledge and of the power that can come from knowledge,” she said, “I think it’s really important that we don’t try to close that off from other people.”
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