When Penn President Liz Magill delivered her first Convocation address at Penn just over a year ago in 2022, she shared a rule she had learned while clerking for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Engage with and understand the very best version of your opponent’s argument.
Magill went on to encourage the Class of 2026 to do just that.
“Seek out people who are different from you in all sorts of ways, engage with them, learn from them, and, yes, feel free to disagree with them — productively,” she said.
Magill’s address — which was itself interrupted by a protest that halted her speech — indicated that promoting both free speech and diversity of thought would be a priority throughout her presidency. But disagreements about the much-contested boundaries between free speech and hate speech have since challenged the new president on both fronts, consuming the University in an ongoing discourse between students, alumni, faculty, administrators, and external groups.
A year and a half since Magill’s first Convocation address, many students, faculty, and alumni told The Daily Pennsylvanian that they no longer feel that free speech and productive disagreement are possible on campus. Depending on whom you ask, Magill has either failed to uphold free speech or failed to sufficiently protect vulnerable groups from hate speech.
Magill declined the DP's request for an interview. Nonetheless, the DP spoke with 14 students, faculty, alumni, and former colleagues of Magill to explore the state of the current free speech fight at Penn and how it has evolved under Magill’s leadership.
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The first serious challenge to free speech during Magill’s tenure happened in response to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival hosted on campus in September. The festival sparked fear and outrage among Penn students, alumni and community members of national Jewish groups who objected to the inclusion of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters — who the United States Department of State has said to have a “long track of using antisemitic tropes” — and other speakers who have allegedly made antisemitic comments in the past.
Magill and administrators came under criticism for having permitted what critics saw as hate speech on campus. Her initial response — a statement condemning antisemitism while reaffirming her belief in the importance of freedom of speech — would satisfy neither side, and was linked on the president’s website but was not immediately distributed to the Penn community in a University-wide message.
“We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values,” the statement read. “As a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”
Students on all sides of the issue responded with anger. Over 200 students signed a letter asserting that the event violated several University standards and would create a “hostile” environment for Jewish students. Another group accused Magill of “marginaliz[ing] Palestinian students” by conflating calls for Palestinian liberation with antisemitism.
The greater Penn community also pushed back. 2,000 pro-Israel Penn alumni and affiliates, including 1984 Wharton Graduate and CEO of Apollo Global Management, Inc. Marc Rowan, signed onto a public letter calling on Magill to further distance the University from the festival.
Magill’s purported failure to respond in a sufficiently forceful manner would become “the tipping point” for many of those alumni signatories and more, according to 1979 Wharton graduate and signatory Andrew Heyer, who argued that "the lack of balance has gotten out of control" on campus.
“Many, many people think there’s a lack of a moral compass,” Class of 1972 President Jeffrey Rothbard said, expressing frustration that the festival coincided with Yom Kippur.
The DP’s conversations with additional alumni present on the call reaffirmed these sentiments. Several objected to the festival’s content.
“I don’t think it’s an issue of free speech. If an event is going to be a hate-fest, it shouldn’t be permitted,” Class of 1973 President Larry Finkelstein said. “I don’t understand how anyone can say genocidal speech should be free and protected.”
However, some said that the festival served a much different purpose. In a Sept. 2 letter to Magill, Palestine Writes Executive Director Susan Abulhawa said that anti-Israel bias and antisemitism were not "interchangeable concepts."
"Situating those individual Palestinians and our allies in league with actual anti-semites is wholly irresponsible and dangerous," Abulhawa wrote to Magill. "It is also an insult to the intelligence of your university community."
Regardless, some free speech experts pointed out that much, though not all, of what is classified as hate speech is protected under the First Amendment.
Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression Policy Director Joe Cohn said there are several forms of hate speech that are not protected by the Constitution, including actual threats, incitement to imminent acts of lawlessness, and student-on-student harassment, while pointing out that the threshold for what constitutes hate speech is high.
“It’s a very high bar, and even most vile positions don’t meet any of those exceptions,” Cohn said. “In order for [hate speech] to lose its protected status, there has to be real conduct that violates the law.”
Penn professor of Education and Philosophy and national free speech scholar Sigal Ben-Porath agreed, noting that the statements which she heard were made at the Festival and in the protests that followed the Israel-Hamas war do not constitute harassment or threats.
Nonetheless, the pushback from alumni only intensified in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Following the attack, dozens of donors pulled their support and openly criticized Magill for what they saw as her failure to combat antisemitism.
Rowan was the first to pull his donations, calling on Magill and University Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok to step down, emphasizing that the attacks on Israel prove that “words and ideas matter.” Other notable alumni who spoke out against Magill include 1987 Wharton graduate Jon Huntsman Jr. and 1965 Wharton graduate Ronald Lauder.
Over 350 alumni joined a Zoom call on Oct. 15 to discuss the University’s response to antisemitism. The overriding opinion of people on the call was that Magill would need to step down, according to Rothbard. He added that a primary cause of these feelings was the fact that the Palestine Writes festival had been allowed to occur on campus.
Magill’s initial statement in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack emphasized her desire to “focus first and foremost on supporting the Penn community,” highlighting resources available to support students and groups impacted by the attack. She has indicated that she has no plans to step down.
Ben-Porath noted that University statements issued during times of crisis are most effective when they do not aim to advance foreign policy. Rather, she said the focus of such messages should be on supporting the community.
“Generally speaking, University statements are at their best to win when they focus on addressing on campus matters, responding to how students and others feel or what their needs are, rather than taking positions about various matters outside of campus,” she said. “They should also offer contexts in which you can expand your knowledge and understanding.”
The Kalven Report, published in 1967, argued that universities should maintain neutrality on political and social issues, although it was never formally endorsed by the American Association for University Professors.
Ben-Porath said she believes that neutrality on political events is no longer possible, as recent precedent indicates that students and other community members now expect statements from their administrators.
In the aftermath of the pushback from influential donors and alumni, Magill issued a statement on Oct. 15 explicitly condemning Hamas’ “terrorist assault on Israel and their violent atrocities against civilians” and apologizing for the hurt, pain, and frustration caused by the Palestine Writes festival.
This statement included no acknowledgement of Palestinian loss of life, which some students viewed as conceding to donor wishes.
“Free speech requires a commitment to making space for dissenting views and minority opinions even when they're inconvenient or controversial from your perspective or from the perspective of the people funding you or the people scrutinizing you,” College senior Jack Starobin, a member of progressive Jewish group Penn Chavurah, said.
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The turmoil over Penn’s response to the Palestine Writes festival and the Middle East conflict gained significant traction while another free speech controversy at Penn involving tenured University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School professor Amy Wax has also been coming to a head.
Wax has a long history of making allegedly racist, homophobic, and xenophobic comments, driving petitions to suspend her and reform the University’s tenure policy.
She previously said that “the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration" in 2022 and twice invited white nationalist Jared Taylor to give a guest lecture in her LAW 9560: “Conservative and Legal Thought” class, renewing demands to terminate her employment. Most recently, dozens of Penn Carey Law students protested outside of Wax's classroom during Taylor's lecture on Nov. 28.
Magill’s permitting of an event that hosted allegedly antisemitic speakers at the Palestine Writes festival has raised the question of whether it would now be hypocritical for the University to sanction Wax.
On Nov. 2, Wax’s lawyer David Shapiro submitted an op-ed to the DP, calling out what he identified as Magill’s hypocrisy on free speech. He said that Magill’s defense of the festival despite its violation of “institutional values” while the University pushes forth with charges against Wax is an example of “selective prosecution,” in which a powerful institution singles out one individual for controversial views while permitting others to do the same without sanction.
Cohn reaffirmed Wax’s right to free speech.
“You’re talking about the academic freedom of a faculty member,” Cohn said. “That should never be taken lightly.”
Other Penn community members view Wax’s case in a different light. Though she declined to comment specifically on Wax’s case, Ben-Porath — who chaired the faculty board that heard Wax’s case — said that the Wax and Palestine Writes festival cases are different on an institutional level.
“It makes sense to have different expectations from members of our community than from guests,” Ben-Porath said. “There are greater responsibilities, commitments, and protections that members of our community have, so it’s also a different set of relationship and professional expectations.”
A second-year Penn Carey Law student, who was granted anonymity due to fear of retaliation, said that she believes the University’s failure to sanction Wax and Magill’s silence on the case is to the detriment of the Penn community. She said that “bigoted speech actively harms” people of color and should thus be regulated more than free speech.
“In advocating for free speech, Magill has failed to clarify that all speech isn’t necessarily good, which is unsurprising given the school’s stance of inaction on Wax for at least the last decade,” the student said.
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In conversations with the DP, Magill’s former colleagues at the University of Virginia — where she was provost — and Stanford University — where she was the law school dean — spoke highly of her history of defending free speech and promoting dialogue.
Harvard Law School professor and former UVA law professor Michael Klarman, who taught Magill when she was a law student at UVA and worked with her when she was provost, told the DP that her interest in promoting and understanding a variety of perspectives has been present since she was a student.
Magill led Stanford Law School through the Racism Lives Here Too movement in 2018, led by first-year women of color. Students placed signs around campus that included racist quotes that had been overheard at Stanford Law. By organizing a Working Committee on Diversity to address concerns, Magill made it clear that students have the right to protest. Former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy, who worked alongside Magill throughout her tenure as dean of Stanford Law, commended this response.
In the wake of the incident, critics told Magill she was too lenient with the students and failed to condemn the harm they felt had stemmed from the protest.
“It is not my job, and I will not tell people how to protest,” she said in a 2019 interview reflecting on the incident. “They get to express their concerns in whatever way they want, as long as they’re not engaging in criminal action.”
When Magill served as UVA provost, Klarman said she led a faculty that was unique in having a notably conservative faction, as compared to most schools, which tend to lean left.
Klarman called Magill respected among UVA staff and “fair-minded and reasonable” with her conservative colleagues, valuing their perspectives even when they were different from her own.
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Some faculty and students at Penn feel this purported commitment to intellectual exchange has been lost during Magill’s presidency of the University.
In the most recent turn of events, University administrators postponed the screening of a documentary called “Israelism” last week. The award-winning documentary follows two American Jews who develop a conflicted relationship with Israel after witnessing the government’s treatment of Palestinians.
The screening, which was organized by Jewish group Penn Chavurah, was initially scheduled to take place in October. However, organizers postponed the screening due to the recency of the start of the Israel-Hamas war. Starobin said that when the group tried to reschedule for late November, their request was denied by the University due to concerns over safety.
Chavurah decided to screen the film regardless, despite warnings that the decision might jeopardize Chavurah’s funding and status as a Penn organization. While acknowledging the safety concerns, Starobin said the decision to cancel the screening was censorship, citing the criticism of campus events from right-wing donors and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie as supporting evidence.
“There’s a lot of pressure on Magill to silo the University into a one-side, pro-Israel response in the name of student safety,” Starobin said. “It seems that she has given into that pressure at the expense of free speech, and it’s really disheartening.”
Nita Farahany, a law professor at Duke University, cited shifting generational expectations in speech as a potential contributing factor to the current free speech controversies at Penn and on other college campuses. She said that this — in combination with the historical backdrop required to understand the conflict in the Middle East — makes it "easy for [college campuses] to become an incredibly explosive environment.”
“What might have in the past been a conversation about the extent and limits of freedom of speech is now a situation where for some, seeing or experiencing speech as violence makes them feel literally unsafe,” she said.
On Nov. 28, as the controversy boiled over, Middle East Center Director Harun Küçük stepped down from his position, citing the state of freedom of speech on campus since the Palestine Writes festival.
“You know those t-shirts that get holes and start to fray and eventually you’re not sure if it’s a piece of garment anymore? That’s how [free speech at Penn] feels,” Küçük said.
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Penn community members, students, and experts have differing perspectives on the future of free speech at Penn and how Magill should approach the issue.
Cohn underscored his belief that University administrators should focus on protecting student safety while promoting freedom of speech. He said Magill should not take stances on political issues since this runs the risk of “silencing the voices of dissenters.”
“[Administrators] should really be doing everything they can to make sure that faculty and students engage in vibrant but lawful discussions of contemporary and difficult issues,” Cohn said.
Penn administrators have indicated that they maintain faith in Magill, even amid backlash.
An email sent to other Penn administrators by several colleagues of Magill on Oct. 13 — at the height of the donor pushback — emphasized their belief that “it is important during this challenging time to vocalize and record our support for President Magill,” according to one source familiar with the exchange.
Klarman and Etchemendy, Magill’s former colleagues, also echoed that their confidence in Magill has not faltered. While acknowledging donors’ right to disagree with her handling of the issue, Klarman described their assertions that she is not up to the job as “ignorant” and “irresponsible,” emphasizing that her professional record indicates she is fit for the job.
Etchemendy also underscored Magill’s status as a new member of the administration as a factor contributing to “unfair pushback,” a pattern he has also observed with the treatment of Harvard’s new president.
College sophomore and Political Director of College Republicans Peter Kapp said his concerns lie in the ways the left-leaning student body and faculty contribute to a need for self-censorship and not in Magill’s handling of the issue.
College senior and Fossil Free Penn coordinator Katie Francis said that external forces like donors, rather than Magill, are the primary threat to free speech facing Penn. They said that Magill does “have a role to play in upholding free speech,” and called on her to make an explicit statement affirming free speech and academic freedom at Penn.
Other students have less faith in Magill and the future of free speech at Penn. A law student at Penn said she believes treatment of free speech is not equitable on both sides of the political spectrum.
“Free speech is often used in higher education to allow conservative, sometimes racially inflammatory views, like those held by Amy Wax, while silencing left-leaning views like those held by pro-Palestinian groups,” she said. “Magill’s silence on the Wax case is indicative of how I feel about her presidency.”
Ben-Porath also highlighted Magill’s duty to support open dialogue, even when it is not always successful.
“You tried an idea and it didn’t work, or you hurt someone? We all do that, and it’s important to have the backing and grace of our University when we’re trying to learn, even if we do it wrong sometimes,” she said.