A month into my first year, I stepped out of Van Pelt Library and was greeted by a large crowd of students amassed around a self-proclaimed “confrontational evangelist” group that was yelling slurs and telling students they were going to hell.
I was in shock. I did not know how to respond and, like many, I thought it was a joke at first — so excessively insulting and ridiculous that it must have had ulterior motives.
So, as the crowd grew and students pulled down their pants, took selfies, and hurled back insults in response, I sat on a nearby bench, followed the link on their signs, and researched this body-camera-wearing man with a megaphone, noting the Penn Police presence to ensure things did not get out of hand.
Here are the highlights: the man yelling at students is, allegedly by his own admission, more than $5 million in debt in part due to fines from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission for fraud; he has sued several entities for undisclosed settlement payments on free speech grounds; and his antics are typically recorded and then uploaded to various social media websites, such as YouTube and TikTok. Oh, and he knows how to toe the line in the legal sand, always staying within his rights for where he can stand, how he can behave, and what he can say.
I tell this story as a cautionary tale. These people will be back — if not them specifically then others like them — just as they have returned in my following semesters here and have visited since before I arrived. As a result, you should know how to react: don’t. Don’t stand in a group around them and gawk; don’t yell back; don’t sit on a nearby bench and give them more views or more content for social media or the legal system. Do not give them the reactions that they so desperately try to provoke.
Penn is an impressive, diverse place where ideas should be openly discussed and debated, but yelling at someone with a megaphone because they intentionally are trying to goad you into doing something you’ll regret is not how you change minds or defend your values.
I understand the appeal of wanting to stand up and show that these types of agitators — who do nothing but spread hate — are not welcome on our campus, but some of the people who come to provoke students are only visiting specifically for the attention that comes from students responding. Be it due to twisted and dogmatic religious beliefs, a desire for views on social media, or something far more nefarious, these people may come to anger you, but to publicly engage back is to state the jeering is worthy of a response. Sometimes it just isn’t, which is why I have not found a need to mention a specific group name or link to specific social media.
As you walk down Locust over the semesters, you will see plenty of protestors, like Fossil Free Penn, who are genuinely arguing for a cause and want to discuss issues with you. One of the important things to learn and recognize, though, is how to distinguish the motive behind the people speaking before deciding on how to best react. This includes, at times, not engaging with people at all.
Our attention as students with the privilege of being educated at an institution like Penn is extremely limited and valuable, and it is important that we do not waste it. But perhaps even more important is that we also do not get cajoled into stereotyping all types of disagreement based upon the bad faith examples we may run across on Locust.
If none of this is convincing to you, and you still want to yell at the crazies you will inevitably pass by just because it is fun, fine, but do so with consideration and intention. Know that they are trying to upset you; know that they are trying to embarrass you; know the limits of how you can respond.
And while you are at it, do keep in mind that if you were to, hypothetically, play copyrighted music on your phone next to the cameras that are always set up, the videos at the very least could not be posted on YouTube.
SPENCER GIBBS is a College and Engineering junior studying philosophy, politics, and economics and systems engineering from Tallahassee, Fla. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.