Your Voice | Protecting speech we may not like

Penn President Amy Gutmann and Chair of the Board of Trustees David L. Cohen address the upcoming Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions conference

· February 1, 2012, 11:59 pm   ·  Updated February 2, 2012, 11:51 pm

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This weekend there will be a conference on our campus sponsored by Penn BDS that has caused great concern to many in the Penn community. We feel it is important to address the issues around this conference and thus write today to affirm the University’s perspective.

First, some context: Penn BDS is a registered student group that was granted formal recognition late last year by the Student Activities Council, a group comprised solely of students who are charged with reviewing and approving applications by student organizations. Once approved, registered students groups have the right to organize events and conferences, and the conference occurring this weekend is a result. This conference is not a University sponsored or promoted event.

The stated purpose of BDS is to advocate for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the State of Israel. We want to be absolutely clear on this point: the University has repeatedly, consistently and forcefully expressed our adamant opposition to this agenda. Simply stated, we fundamentally disagree with the position taken by Penn BDS.

At the same time — and this is an equally important point — we recognize and respect their right to open expression. Just because we disagree — in this case strongly and deeply — with a group’s message does not mean that they lose their right to voice that message.

This is not the first time (nor will it likely be the last) when student groups espouse positions that run counter to our institutional values and ideals. Open expression can be a painful business. But it is vitally important that we protect it on our campus, including the expression of views with which we vehemently disagree.

Since its founding more than 270 years ago, Penn has stood for the free exchange of ideas. That concept is central to our mission, and is one that cannot be compromised if we are to uphold our standing as a great university.

Amid the passion that many feel around this weekend’s events, we urge you to focus on the one thing we cannot afford to lose: the great tradition and enduring gift of Penn’s founders — the chance to speak our minds freely.

Amy Gutmann is the President of the University of Pennsylvania. David L. Cohen is the Chair of the Board of Trustees.

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