At Penn, freedom of speech a double-edged sword
The emphasis on freedom of speech at Penn has caused controversies, change
April 28, 2011, 3:36 am · Updated April 27, 2011, 12:00 am·
While Penn's policies on free speech and open expression have allowed students to speak out about race, they have also sparked campus-wide controversies.
“With freedom of expression comes people who will say hurtful things,” said Communications professor Carolyn Marvin, who teaches a course entitled “History and Theory of Freedom of Expression.”
Last week, Liberal and Professional Studies student Christopher Abreu wrote a Daily Pennsylvanian guest column on his experience as a victim of racism. The day after his column ran, over 200 students gathered in solidarity through a silent protest on College Green.
While Marvin praised the silent protest and continues to encourage students to speak out, she said, “There is a tension between freedom of expression and respect for others. They do not coexist as well as they should in our community.”
In 1993, an incident involving racial slurs — called the “water buffalo” incident — occurred on campus. Then-College freshman Eden Jacobowitz shouted “water buffalo” to a group of black sorority women allegedly making noise outside his high-rise apartment. The women accused Jacobowitz of violating the University’s racial harassment policy.
Jacobowitz, however, maintained that “water buffalo” was not intended to be a racial slur against blacks.
The University charged him with racial harassment under its Code of Conduct.
As the case gathered media attention, though, the sorority women dropped charges, claiming that the widespread media coverage would prevent a fair trial.
Since then, Penn has worked toward and earned a green-light rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustaining freedom of speech in American colleges and universities
Green — the highest possible rating — indicates that FIRE is unable to find University policies that threaten students’ free speech rights on campus. Dartmouth College is the only other Ivy League school with this rating.
“Penn’s policies over the years have grown increasingly protective of free speech,” according to FIRE’s website. The organization was jointly created in 1999 by History professor Alan Kors and Massachusetts attorney Harvey Silverglate following the water buffalo scandal.
1998 Wharton graduate and associate director of Makuu Daina Richie-Troy said during her time as a student at Penn, she and the Black Student League protested on College Green for the administration to make Martin Luther King Day a day off from classes. She also rallied for renovations to the DuBois College House.
“When students here want something, they go straight to the top,” she said.
However, she called these instances “small-scale protests,” and believes this is the first time a case of discrimination was publicized by the DP.
“Many of us at the cultural centers hear instances and stories from people who feel that they don’t belong or have experienced discrimination. This was the first time someone actually wrote about it,” Richie-Troy said.
Ajay Nair, senior associate vice provost for Student Affairs, also praised the “thoughtfulness, energy and leadership” of those who led the silent protest on College Green.
“I’ve been consistently impressed with the students have demonstrated toward ways we can improve our community,” he wrote in an email.
Yet, the University’s Committee on Open Expression — which monitors free speech among the Penn community — has been inactive this year, said Wharton sophomore Lavinia Seow, who is a member of the committee.
Seow is disappointed that the committee has not met or communicated during the current academic year.
In response to Abreu’s article, “we should have met with other leaders on campus, and we should have been the one organizing [the protest],” she said.