Last Tuesday, a group of homophobic street preachers made yet another appearance on Penn’s campus, again creating a distressing situation for students understandably offended by the group’s bigoted and often intensely personal rhetoric.
On the previous occasions in which the group has come to campus, the University has behaved admirably. Given that the preachers go out of their way to insult students on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation, many schools would have been less scrupulous about being venues for the exchange of all ideas.
Penn, by contrast, has protected the preachers’ right to speak by sending police officers and Open Expression Monitors to keep order and ensure the ability of both demonstrators and those who choose to confront them to have a say. That precedent, however, was apparently not followed during the group’s most recent visit to campus.
Although University spokesman Stephen MacCarthy denied knowledge of any Penn staff being instructed to interfere with the protests, a Facilities and Real Estate Services worker running the engine of a noisy maintenance vehicle at the site of one of the demonstrations told The Daily Pennsylvanian that he had been instructed to drown out the protesters by someone from the University.
Although it remains unclear exactly who instructed FRES staff to disrupt the protest, we feel that the action, whoever initiated it, was inappropriate — particularly if motivated by the protesters’ unpleasant message.
The DP sincerely understands that these protesters go out of their way to be offensive, insulting and hurtful and that they in many cases succeed in deeply upsetting Penn students. We appreciate that whoever told FRES workers to drown them out most likely had compassionate and altruistic intentions. We furthermore find the chosen method of disruption — noisy landscaping equipment — to be clever, creative and even amusing.
As an organization which relies on a climate of unfettered speech and discourse on campus to perform our function, however, we cannot condone official intervention in expressive activity. No matter how nasty the message, this was still a peaceful protest of the type that Penn explicitly allows.
By the terms of its own Guidelines on Open Expression, “the University affirms that the substance or the nature of the views expressed is not an appropriate basis for any restriction upon or encouragement of an assembly or a demonstration.” This commitment means that only the conduct of protesters can justify shutting down a demonstration, not their message. If the University has awarded itself discretion to decide what messages will go undisrupted on campus and which must compete with leaf blowers and Gator trucks, Penn’s robust climate of free expression is in jeopardy.
Even if the University employee who initiated the disruption believed it to be justified under Penn policy, the chosen mechanism was nevertheless inappropriate. If an appropriate body had determined that the protesters had violated the Guidelines on Open Expression or any applicable criminal laws, it would have justified removing them from campus, not merely drowning them out.
It is worth remembering also that this action did not silence only hateful views. A leaf blower or a truck engine drowns out love as well as vitriol, depriving students who might have wished to show support for their peers via counter-protest the chance to be heard as well.
Ultimately, this was a transgression, not a travesty. Though sending leaf blowers to disrupt a hateful protest did not comport with our treasured vision of the University as an open forum for the vigorous exchange and contest of ideas, it was clever and, we are sure, well-meaning. We are disappointed, but not outraged at the decision, whoever made it. We hope it will not happen again.