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In the spring of my freshman year, I arrived at Irvine Auditorium to see my first prominent speaker on campus — Karl Rove. Penn had been abuzz that week over the Social Planning and Events Committee’s somewhat controversial selection.

After Rove was interviewed by a Penn professor, the audience was invited to ask him questions. They started out harmless enough — some opinionated and some thought-provoking.

But I was embarrassed to see multiple students reach the microphone and dispense vitriolic tirades on Rove’s stint in former President George W. Bush’s administration. Students called him a cancer eating away at our civil liberties and proclaimed that he was responsible for the destruction of America.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. Was this how Penn students treated the speakers that came to campus? Clearly, others were annoyed as well because these outspoken students were urged to sit down. I remember turning to my hallmate with my mouth open in shock at these students’ misuse of their opportunity to speak.

When speakers come to campus, those in attendance need to, in the immortal words of Aretha Franklin, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Even when it’s hard. Even when we fundamentally disagree with the speakers’ beliefs.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t question. We should challenge our speakers with questions that demonstrate our knowledge and enthusiasm. We are granted an incredible opportunity to engage in a dialogue with these high-profile individuals. It would be terribly boring to only have questions coming from students in agreement with the speaker.

But an insult is pointless. A tirade is pointless. It’s a waste of our speaker’s time and a waste of our fellow students’ time. The University community comes to hear the words of the speaker, not those of students.

When attendees lash out at a speaker, their actions are reflective of the Penn community, and they’ve done our community a disservice. Rather than displaying their intellect, they’ve essentially resulted to name-calling.

“We do have a person from the University there for inappropriate behavior as far as questions go,” SPEC Connaissance co-director and Wharton sophomore Crystal Lu said. “But we’re really relying on the trust of students to basically ask appropriate questions and not be disrespectful to our guest.”

Connaissance spends months planning these events, according to Lu. It began organizing to bring the spring speaker — former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — at the end of November. The group, which is composed of our fellow students, deals with the agents of speakers, plans out every aspect of the events, flyers and sells tickets. When students act inappropriately, it’s a signal to Connaissance that it shouldn’t work to bring high-profile, controversial speakers to Penn.

In January, Penn for Palestine brought Norman Finkelstein, an anti-Israel speaker to campus. Evan Philipson, College senior and president of Penn Israel Coalition, sent out an e-mail to the group’s listserv, which said, “I encourage you to ask tough questions and challenge the speaker, but remember to be respectful and civil in your tone. Although you may vehemently disagree with Mr. Finkelstein’s views, there is no reason for … outlandish behavior.”

Philipson’s e-mail emphasizes the methods that student groups can use to remind their members to be polite when attending speakers whose beliefs may contradict their own.

Next Tuesday, Gingrich will grace us with his presence. It’s unarguable that his experience and credentials will make for a worthwhile talk. But it’s also likely that he will represent a political perspective that the majority of Penn students disagree with. In the heat of the moment, a student may make a comment that’s unsuitable for the situation.

SPEC Connaissance can do its part to remind the Penn community to be respectful, and students should take these words to heart. Any questions?

Sabrina Benun is a College senior from Santa Monica, Calif. Her e-mail address is Last Call appears every Friday. This article has been updated to correct the day Gingrich will come to campus. He will speak on Tuesday, Feb. 22. More information about the event can be found on SPEC's website.

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