Every one of us, no matter our political views, has a campus issue that we’re passionate about. For some that issue is sexual assault, for others it’s diversity and for almost every student on Penn’s campus, the rising cost of tuition is a subject of concern.
But while these issues may feel particularly salient to our current moment, they are by no means new. Each struggle we face has a history — a legacy of student activism that’s transformed Penn into what it is today. And for every one of the issues I’ve mentioned, there’s been a student-led sit-in held to address it.
When about 130 students gathered in the lobby of College Hall as part of Fossil Free Penn’s protest for the University to divest from fossil fuels, they became a part of that tradition. And when the administration gave citations to 69 of those students, it didn’t just threaten them, it threatened every student on campus who might want to advocate for a better future.
We all rely on the freedom to express our views without punishment and therefore we should all be concerned when that freedom is endangered.
The right to hold a peaceful demonstration is something all Penn students possess. So long as the students involved are operating within Penn’s Open Expression Guidelines, any attempt by the University to deter their demonstration would be a violation of its own policy.
I reached out to the chair of the Open Expression Committee, Sigal Ben-Porath, and a University spokesperson to ask why students had been cited for their demonstration. Unfortunately, both declined to talk to me on the matter, saying that University policy forbid them from discussing citations.
This refusal to communicate on disciplinary policies suggests a certain unwillingness on the part of the administration to defend and explain their actions. This lack of transparency is disheartening, and we as a community deserve to hear a justification for these citations.
As far as I can tell, the only reason that students were written up is that they didn’t leave College Hall before it closed at 6 p.m. But if it’s true that administrators were just following protocol and not actively trying to silence Fossil Free Penn, then why did they incur citations for sleeping in College Hall on Wednesday night but not on Tuesday?
The fact that this rule isn’t being enforced systematically seems to suggest that it was little more than a pretense for punishing Fossil Free Penn’s dissent. And according to College sophomore and Fossil Free Penn member David Zhao, “[Administrators] used [the sit-in] as a justification to shut down negotiations, essentially saying ‘well now you’re in bad standing because you’ve incurred these citations and we’re not really gonna talk to you.’”
So not only did the administration only start issuing citations after the sit-in had progressed, they also used them during negotiations as a way of discrediting Fossil Free Penn. These sorts of underhanded tactics denigrate our University and run counter to our principles of free and open expression.
But if the citations don’t seem so concerning to you now then consider what sort of precedent they might set. In the past students have been charged for things like barricading the entrance to College Hall. Now they’re being charged for staying past 6 p.m. When the limits put on expression become more confining, it threatens the voice of all students, not just those who are currently being penalized.
There are of course countless other ways to advocate for change. Students can write op-eds, petition the University or lobby for change through the Undergraduate Assembly. But when those other avenues are exhausted, a peaceful demonstration becomes the primary method of engagement.
In the past students have relied on sit-ins as a way to lobby for an array of crucial policy changes. It’s because of a sit-in that female students convinced the administration to adopt anti-rape procedures. It’s because of a sit-in that the administration agreed to establish an intercultural center and continue need-blind admissions.
Without the unfettered right to hold a peaceful sit-in, the power that students possess is sorely limited. So regardless of whether or not you’re sympathetic to Fossil Free Penn’s cause, we should all recognize the danger that a repressive administration represents.
CAMERON DICHTER is a College junior from Philadelphia, studying English. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Real Talk” usually appears every other Monday.
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