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Students in Fossil Free Penn organized a press conference on College Green on Sept. 26, 2022. Credit: Derek Wong

The Committee on Open Expression held a meeting on April 26 to hear community concerns about their proposed interpretation of Penn’s open expression guidelines.

About 20 people — including students, committee members, and faculty — attended the meeting. Professor of medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and chair of the COE Lisa Bellini led the discussion, and fellow committee members Eric Orts and Ann Farnsworth-Alvear joined her. Students from Fossil Free Penn objected to several clauses of the interpretation, urging the COE to take a more active role in protecting students’ right to protest. 

The COE is a committee of 17 members — including faculty and graduate and undergraduate students — whose major focus, according to Bellini, is to “provide future guidance to the University community on how open expression should unfold on campus.” 

The committee was created under, and must abide by the jurisdiction of Penn’s Guidelines on Open Expression

The COE acts as an advisory body to the Vice Provost of University Life, the office responsible for monitoring violations of the open expression guidelines and deciding whether to pursue disciplinary action. According to VPUL's discretion, they may refer the case to the Center for Community Standards and Accountability, which conducts hearings to determine culpability and assign appropriate penalties. 

The COE has the ability to interpret the guidelines, and today’s meeting marks the fifth ever time they have met to discuss the guideline's interpretations since the creation of the guidelines in 1969. Bellini told the DP that the committee found a revised interpretation necessary following confusion over the past year on the operating principles of the COE and their relationship to VPUL. 

To begin the meeting, Bellini laid out the proposed interpretation revisions. 

First, the COE intends to clarify the role of an Open Expression Observer, a delegate from VPUL sent to monitor events which might violate the open expression guidelines. Bellini noted that students often associated these delegates with the COE, but she stressed that they are unaffiliated. To make the distinction more clear, she suggests that these observers be renamed “VPUL delegates.” 

“The VPUL delegates certainly have the authority to determine if the guidelines are being violated … but that’s separate and distinct from the committee.” Bellini said. “An appropriate role for the COE is to provide another set of ears and layer of expertise.” 

Secondly, the revised interpretations define the purpose of the COE as an advisory committee to retroactively examine cases taken by VPUL and advise them on future action. For example, in the case of the Fossil Free Penn encampment in the fall, COE was not directly involved until after the fact. 

“We were given the situation and then asked to provide future guidance on what would be considered an infraction to the guidelines,” Bellini explained. “We weren’t mediating that in real time.” 

However, there is an exception. If a COE member is present during an event during which there is conflict over open expression, they can participate in the mediation. 

In light of this, the revised interpretations ask that the chair of the COE be advised of any “future possible controversial conduct or events,” while recognizing that VPUL may have to take immediate action in situations without prior notice. 

College first year and FFP member Omar Elsakhawy said that these revised interpretations do not do enough to protect students’ right to free expression. During the encampment, Elsakhawy said he was approached by a member of the Penn administration and told that he could either be photographed or hand over his ID to be referred to VPUL. 

After this encounter, Elsakhawy said he and other members of FFP were referred by VPUL to CSA for their actions during the encampment, after which they allegedly had to undergo disciplinary hearings for multiple months before finally being acquitted. 

“[The process is] purposefully meant to drain us as an activist group because we have to invest our energy in going through this menial bureaucratic process instead of focusing our energy on making change in the community,” Elsakhawy said. 

During the meeting, fellow FFP members and College juniors Mira Sydow and Megha Neelapu joined Elsakhawy. The three expressed their appreciation for the efforts of the COE in updating the guidelines, but they stressed the importance of limiting VPUL's power. 

Among her suggestions for improving the interpretation, Sydow — a former editor for 34th Street magazine — proposed that the COE develop a process for dealing with non-student community members who violate the open expression guidelines, such as the administrator who threatened to take their IDs. She advised that any CSA referrals obtained through these practices, which she alleges violates the guidelines, be thrown out. 

Sydow said that the COE should be involved, or at least informed, throughout every stage of the mediation process for open expression violations. When she went through her own hearings, she said she didn’t know whether COE was aware of CSA’s actions. 

“As a judicial body, having COE’s perspective and knowledge during these proceedings would make students feel more secure in the disciplinary process,” Sydow said. 

Furthermore, the FFP members advocated that the OEOs disassociate from VPUL. They argued that because VPUL has the power of referral to CSA and judgment on open expression violations, there needs to be a check on their power. 

“Otherwise, VPUL becomes judge, jury, and executioner,” Elsakhawy said. “We need an impartial person to do that.” 

Political Science professor Tulia Falleti added to these concerns, questioning whether the COE is doing enough to actively defend the students’ right to free expression. She said that she felt that the COE, as a collaborative student-faculty committee, seems to be ceding too much of their decision making power to VPUL. 

As a political scientist, she said she believes that the ability to dissent is integral to the maintenance of a peaceful democracy, and that it is Penn’s responsibility to preserve this right. 

In response to these concerns, the COE members reminded students and faculty that they are not able to change the guidelines, only to interpret them. Orts said that to implement many of the structural changes discussed would require a much more extensive process that was beyond the scope of today’s meeting. 

“We’re essentially stuck with legislation that is not ideal,” Orts said of the guidelines.

However, Bellini was hopeful that they would be able to integrate some of the students’ suggestions into the revised interpretations, although it is unclear which reforms fall under the limited jurisdiction of the COE. She stressed the importance of maintaining a collaborative spirit and uplifting the Penn community. 

“We should all be able to agree on what constitutes a violation of open expression when something is so disruptive that it’s preventing people from being able to express different opinions,” Bellini said. “And at the end of the day, fundamentally, all nine pages of these guidelines are about that one sentence.”