The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

On Jan. 13, 1993, a College freshman's cry of "water buffalo" became a shout that echoed throughout the University -- eventually spawning what would become the infamous Water Buffalo affair.

That April, an entire press run of the Daily Pennsylvanian was stolen by a group of students in order to protest the publication of a controversial columnist's work.

Now, ten years later, the DP has decided to take a weeklong, in-depth look at that tense year, its participants, causes and effects.

From the start, 1993 was an atypical year. Then-University President Sheldon Hackney had just been nominated to head the National Endowment for the Humanities under the Clinton administration and was on his way out. The school was about to resettle itself after his 12-year term.

The scandal began when Eden Jacobowitz, then a first-year resident of High Rise East, became frustrated by the clamorous Founders' Day celebrations of 15 Delta Sigma Theta sisters outside his room. He and other students began yelling out their windows, urging the girls to quiet down.

"Shut up, you water buffalo -- if you want to party go to the zoo," Jacobowitz famously yelled, after a period of frustration at what he claimed was incessant noise.

He was not the only student to scream out to the sisters. Still, Jacobowitz was the only one who came forward when Penn Police, spurred on by five infuriated sisters of the traditionally black sorority, who felt the shouts had violated the University's racial harassment codes, searched the dorm for perpetrators of the offense.

Jacobowitz was also the only student who admitted that he had seen that the sisters were black when he was questioned by the police the following day.

It was an easy choice, then, for Penn's administrative judicial inquiry officer Robin Read, to charge him with having violated Penn's newly rewritten harassment codes.

The new codes, which Hackney had just narrowed, delineated exactly what constituted racial harassment -- speech that was directed at a specific person, that "insults or demeans" that person and that is "intended" to "inflict direct injury" on the comment's receiver.

Looking back, Hackney regrets the way the case was handled at points, though he understands why he did what he did and what the case's "central dilemma" was.

"If you want free speech, barring hate speech doesn't work," Hackney said.

Not only did it not work, but many people felt personally affected by the event that had occurred and those that ensued.

The University, always concerned about tense racial relations on campus, took this as yet another event that might insult blacks on campus. People who had previously become disenchanted with the "political correctness" movement felt this justified their worst fears.

And legally minded individuals were upset by the fact that a student was charged with harassment for calling someone by a term that had no known racial connotations and were disturbed by what they perceived as the University justice system's mishandling of the case.

Jacobowitz was frustrated by the legal attention he was getting. Eventually he asked History Professor Alan Kors to replace his University-appointed defense, the University's Director of Student Life Fran Walker.

For all involved, it was the nuances of the case that really made it complicated. Kors agrees with Hackney about the essential issue that was addressed.

Even more so, though, he did not believe Jacobowitz should be tried even under the current speech codes, as Kors still finds Jacobowitz's comments in no way derogatory.

Kors called in the big guns, including Stefan Presser, legal director of the Pennsylvanian ACLU.

"I thought the University should play to its strength, and that was by educating Eden and others... and not trying to turn themselves into a judicial system," Presser said, explaining why he chose to involve himself in the case.

As Kors and Jacobowitz say, they felt the case was a farce from the beginning, due to negligible evidence on the administration's part.

"After investigating, we recommended to the Judicial Inquiry Office not to pursue the case," Jacobowitz said. "They made their own decision."

Still, the University not only pursued the case but dealt with a second racially charged First Amendment issue that spring.

Gregory Pavlik, a transfer student and the DP's lone conservative columnist that semester, offended readers by writing columns about racial issues on campus, including the validity of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and what he felt was unfair treatment given to black groups on campus.

"I took the helm of the editorial page with the belief that this would be a place of political debate," explained Kenneth Baer, then-editorial page editor for the DP. "Greg Pavlik's views were not outside the stream of political debate in the United States."

Yet, black students were angered by his column and said so, even writing to the DP about its offensiveness in a letter that Baer still recalls today.

The real trouble arose, though, in early March, when Pavlik received a call from the JIO warning him that he was being accused of 34 counts of racial harassment. Kors was contacted about this case as well, and after contacting the JIO, it was dropped.

Still, the issue was far from over.

On April 15, the day of Pavlik's final column that semester, University students organized and implemented the theft of the DP's entire press run.

Howard Gensler, then a member of the DP's alumni board, remembers the feeling of the paper at that time.

"I think it was remembered that taking the entire press run of a newspaper was not a good thing," Gensler said. "I think the DP was upset that the University did not come down a little bit harder on the people who took it."

The DP, apparently, was not the only one upset. Suddenly, the national press began noticing Penn, focusing on the theft of the newspapers and the Water Buffalo affair. The influx, which Hackney suggests was increased by the fact that he was in the running for the NEH position, affected not just Pavlik, but Jacobowitz as well.

For Kors and Jacobowitz, this media attention was what they had been waiting for. Still, while they were happy to receive supportive press, the affair was far from over.

After a postponement of Jacobowitz's trial and then confusion surrounding the purpose of a May 14 trial, a two-page police document was shown explaining Jacobowitz's guilt. It was not until much later that Kors and Jacobowitz learned that the University had a second, longer document that showed Jacobowitz to be not guilty.

Eventually, the affair culminated in the five female students dropping the charges after the JIO panel announced on May 24 that the trial would be held in September.

Though media attention died down, the effects of the trial, including the dissolution of the speech codes and changes in the University justice system, have been long-lasting and changed the way students and harassment issues are treated at Penn and around the nation.

The University today is a different place than it used to be, in part, due to the effects of the affair. As with most debacles, many of the most lasting effects have been positive, though improvements always exist.

"Since the speech code was abolished at Penn, have race relations gotten better or worse?" Kors asked. "They've gotten better."

About this series Ten years ago, the media descended upon Penn. Prompted by the University's handling of the theft of a Daily Pennsylvanian press run and a freshman's shout of "water buffalo," the national press accused the administration of political correctness run amuck. Now that the controversy has died down, the DP decided to take a look back at the incident, its key players and the issues it raised - such as free speech, campus judicial processes and the role of the media.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.