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Credit: Katharine Cocherl

In an environment on campus, and in the broader political landscape, that seems to be becoming increasingly polarized, Penn Political Union aims to provide a platform for students of various backgrounds and political beliefs to freely debate their ideas. 

Most recently, PPU teamed up with The Andrea Mitchell Center, the Pi Sigma Alpha Honor Society, and the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative to host a debate on whether the political atmosphere at Penn, and at other similar institutions, is hostile to the free exchange of ideas.

The formal event took place in College Hall on Jan. 25 and included two teams of three students in a parliamentary-style debate. 

“Honest debate is now being suppressed as more people are being more close-minded, more extreme, and more ill-informed,” College freshman Justin Greenman argued at the debate.

Greenman opened with an anecdote of an incident from the Penn Class of 2021 GroupMe, where he said a prospective student had posted screenshots from another prospective student's Instagram profile that expressed pro-Trump views. This incident, Greenman argued, highlighted how college campuses today have a problem with the free exchange of ideas, leaving students feeling unwelcome and alone. 

This lack of open discussion on college campuses, College freshman Claire Van Duyne argued, leads to ideological complacency. As spaces fill with the politically like-minded, colleges foster a hostile political atmosphere, which limits the spread of free ideas and stifles social progress. 

“Colleges are liberal echo chambers. This doesn’t challenge our ideas. This doesn’t allow us to, in some cases, change our minds,” Van Duyne said. 

College junior Nathan Ausubel led the opposition, countering that today’s college students are, on the whole, fairly moderate, politically diverse and valuing free speech. According to a 2016 Gallup survey, 78 percent of students believed it was more important to expose people to diverse viewpoints, rather than to prohibit biased or offensive speech.

“32 percent of college students describe their college as highly diverse. And 88 percent say yes to valuing free speech in colleges," Ausubel said in reference to the survey.

Ausbubel's team said college campuses are not to blame for political hostility — inaccurate sensationalist media portrayals were. The media is more fixated on instances of political extremity, often when students forcefully shut down speakers, the opposition argued.

“There’s a diversity that’s not being captured by the proposition. It’s a false narrative given our understanding of the diversity that exists on college campuses.”

In addition, the opposition argued that students were justified in protesting many of these ideas, which highlighted real sociopolitical issues, particularly for marginalized communities, such as black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ youth communities. 

Yet, College freshman Destinee Anderson, who attended the event, said she thinks the free exchange of ideas would have to go beyond protests or petitions, which make little room for debate. 

“In general, I think there needs to be more open platforms of discussion. If there were forums for political debate—something anonymous, maybe, or on a smaller scale," Anderson said.  "It’d be more personal, people would be more willing to be open-minded and speak what they truly think."

Ultimately, when it came to bridging the ideological gap, College junior and speaker on the proposition side Owen Pollock said that it all boils down to having an open dialogue with those with disparate ideas. 

“It’s really about having a dialogue, having a cup of coffee and saying, I really disagree with what you said, or I think what you said was interesting. It’s not attempting to use violence to silence them, to fight hate with hate. It’s to unite as a community against hateful sentiments.” 

The proposition won the debate, 15 to 12, with 3 voters abstaining. 

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