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The Penn community saw an influx in student activism on campus this year, and — as a result — administrative response to on-campus protests.

Students facing disciplinary action for their participation in protests have received varied communication from Penn’s Committee on Open Expression, Center for Community Standards and Accountability, and vice provost for University Life, as well as open expression observers acting on behalf of the vice provost — all of which are intended to act as separate entities in addressing students’ rights to free expression on campus.

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with University administrators and student activists to better understand Penn’s open expression guidelines and the role of the University's Committee on Open Expression in evaluating the rights of students to protest on campus.

Recent protests and their consequences

Students affiliated with Fossil Free Penn camped on College Green for 39 days last semester with three demands for Penn: a public commitment toward preserving the University City Townhomes, total fossil fuel divestment, and making payments in lieu of taxes — or PILOTs — to Philadelphia public schools.

This action was capped off by a demonstration last October where nearly 75 students interrupted Penn’s Homecoming football game against Yale. The protest delayed the game for over an hour and resulted in the arrests of 19 demonstrators, 17 of which were Penn students.

In addition to legal repercussions for trespassing, the students faced disciplinary action from the University for violating the open expression guidelines. As a result of not cooperating with the open expression officers at the protest, the students were directed to CSA.

According to a College junior who participated in the protest as well as FFP’s encampment, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from University administrators, students arrested for their participation have since completed their 15 hours of community service required by the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, but they have yet to receive an official verdict from the University regarding next steps in their disciplinary process.

The College junior said that CSA identified seven of the individuals who left the football field at the request of security and police before arrests began.

The College junior said that these students have had their disciplinary charges dropped after being “informally asked to write an essay.”  This, she said, is similar to the action taken by CSA against a student who allegedly participated in the interruption of Convocation for the Class of 2026 last August, organized by the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes.

Separately, the College junior said that the 17 students arrested at the protest were told that they would meet with CSA to discuss disciplinary logistics, but the office has since postponed the meeting indefinitely and failed to provide information about the process and what it will mean for their academic records.

The College junior said that these disciplinary measures being implemented by CSA — on top of those imposed by the Penn Police department — are merely a “suppression tactic for student protestors.”

A main concern voiced by students has been the lack of clarity regarding Penn’s Guidelines on Open Expression, which the protestors have frequently referenced in an attempt to advocate for themselves during the disciplinary process. 

Additionally, there remains discrepancy among students as to whether they have even violated Penn’s guidelines.

Status on Open Expression Guidelines and Penn's Committee on Open Expression

The guidelines, which were created in 1968 amid student protests surrounding United States involvement in the Vietnam War, are intended to protect free speech within the limitations of University functions at Penn.

The guidelines establish the responsibilities of the Committee on Open Expression, designate the vice provost as the enforcer of the guidelines, and specify that only members of the Penn community — students, faculty, and staff — are subject to them. For individuals not affiliated with the University, expression is protected under the First Amendment.

The guidelines also explain that the content of expression should never be taken into consideration when determining whether to restrict protests on campus, but instead that expression may be limited when it interferes with University operations.

The Committee on Open Expression is enshrined in the University Council bylaws as an independent committee. It is tasked with investigating and advising on conflicts of open expression in accordance with Penn’s open expression guidelines.

Lisa Bellini — professor of medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and current chair of the Committee on Open Expression — said that the role of the committee is not to enforce the guidelines, but rather to interpret them and serve as an advisory body to the Penn community.

Instead of addressing open expression on a case-by-case basis, Bellini said the committee amends and interprets the guidelines so that they remain relevant to contemporary issues.

“Our primary role is to give advisory opinions about interpreting the guidelines on open expression [and] inform future guidance. We are not necessarily a ‘real-time’ committee,” Bellini said.

The committee consists of 17 members, including faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students at Penn. 

OSA Executive Director Katie Bonner said that she and Interim Vice Provost for University Life Tamara Greenfield King serve as liaisons to the committee at the discretion of the committee chair.

College sophomore and student representative on the committee Ria Ellendula said that the lack of understanding regarding the responsibilities of the committee and Penn’s own open expression guidelines have caused discrepancies in people's interpretations of the guidelines. 

“Unfortunately, [miscommunication] has caused students to feel like the guidelines aren't being taken seriously,” she said.

Ellendula said the committee is currently considering reinterpreting or amending the guidelines in order to “avoid contention around what is considered protected and what is considered not protected” in the future.

Role of open expression officers

Bonner said that a main complaint she and her colleagues have heard from student protestors this year has been confusion about the role of Penn’s open expression observers on campus.

The vice provost for University Life’s office designates open expression observers to enforce the open expression guidelines on Penn’s campus. Bonner said that some student protestors, however, have  misunderstood these officers as a facet of the Committee on Open Expression in the past.

Bonner also serves as an open expression observer, but she said that her role is entirely separate from the committee.

While the observers do identify themselves at various University events by wearing a red lanyard, Bonner said that their responsibilities are in a volunteer capacity in addition to their roles as University staff.

Whereas the Committee on Open Expression is an advisory body rather than a judiciary, Bonner said that the vice provost for University Life is responsible for ensuring that the guidelines are followed when it comes to daily campus life through the role of open expression observers.

Bonner said that there are currently 12 to 15 active volunteers serving as observers in addition to their typical responsibilities within the University community.

These observers are present at various University events either upon request of faculty — for example, to attend a potentially controversial speaker event — or in anticipation of “organized action,” according to Bonner.

Given the level of activism on campus at the time, as well as the scheduling of President Liz Magill’s inauguration, Penn’s Board of Trustees meeting, and the Homecoming game within the same set of days, Bonner said that “there was a sense that something was going to happen that weekend.”

Bonner said that because observers are meant to engage directly with disruptive individuals on a case-by-case basis, there is no specific protocol that they are required to follow to deescalate a situation. She said, however, that observers have access to a “handbook” with potential scenarios and solutions.

Once activity does become “disruptive,” Bonner said open expression observers are obliged to step in — for example, when student protestors interrupted Penn’s Homecoming game for over an hour.

She clarified that the role of the vice provost for University Life and officers is not to censor the expression.

“Open expression is not there to make sure you're nice to people,” she said.

Student complaints and hopes for the future

FFP organizer Jae Hargest, who is currently on a semester leave from Penn, said that they were frustrated with the inconsistencies between administrative behavior and communication with the Committee of Open Expression.

“Not a single administrator had ever identified themselves as being an open expression observer. Not a single administrator had ever referenced the open expression guidelines to us while trying to punish us. They never even bothered,” Hargest said, referring to their interactions with University administrators during FFP’s 39-day encampment in the fall.

They added that they felt like the enforcers were unfamiliar with the open expression guidelines.

“I would reference Penn’s open expression guidelines, and they wouldn't be able to argue with me about them because they didn't even know them,” Hargest said.

Hargest said that after FFP’s first encampment in spring 2022, the group had a meeting with CSA in which the Committee on Open Expression informed the students that they were within their rights of open expression to camp out on College Green.

Despite this, Hargest said that they continued to face threats of disciplinary action from the vice provost for University Life and open expression observers.

“[Bonner] kept harassing us, kept asking us for IDs, kept trying to enforce the rules when the people that decide what is in and not in the rules said that we were okay,” Hargest said.

Bonner said that open expression observers are intended to deescalate disruptive situations by facilitating conversations with individuals about which of their actions are in violation of the guidelines, why, and what the solutions or potential consequences will be.

A graduate student involved with the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes said, “The University is not interested in protecting ‘free speech’ — they are really interested in maintaining their brand.”

The graduate student, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from University administrators, participated in a protest organized by FFP that disrupted a Penn Alumni event in Huntsman Hall last month.

They said that while the disciplinary action taken against student protestors during the fall semester had not necessarily dissuaded them from protesting in February, they had still been “nervously” checking their email for communication from administration regarding the disruption.

Bonner said that she understands that students may choose to protest regardless of limitations existing in the guidelines because they feel that disruption is a necessary part of their cause. 

“I appreciate that there are people who believe that disruption is still important, and that is a choice that a person can make,” Bonner said.

Hargest said that they hope the Committee on Open Expression amends the guidelines to increase transparency with disciplinary processes. 

“I just want to see change,” Hargest said. “I want to see avenues for equal accountability between students and administrators because, as it stands, the administrators can do whatever they want. Students are the only ones that can be hurt for breaking the rules.”