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Penn Interim President Larry Jameson listens to speakers at the University Council Open Forum on Feb. 21. Credit: Derek Wong

Penn students expressed concerns about free speech on campus and the University’s response to pro-Palestinian demonstrations at the Feb. 21 University Council open forum.

The open forum — which allows all Penn community members to present topics of interest to University Council — was held in the Hall of Flags in Houston Hall on Feb. 21. Topics discussed included Penn’s open expression guidelines, disciplinary actions against students, and the University’s responses to antisemitism and Islamophobia.

College of Liberal and Professional Studies student Nakisha Jones presented a spoken word poem drawing connections between the ongoing conflict in Gaza and discrimination faced by various marginalized communities throughout history. Jones criticized Penn for taking 139 years to enroll a Black student and alleged that the University prioritizes donor interests over student concerns.

“Only [the concerns] whose benefactors hurt the pocketbook of the trustees or the Board of Wharton ... get heard,” Jones said. “Maybe when I have one hundred million dollars, my message will be clear."

Engineering sophomore Lily Brenner questioned Penn’s compliance with its open expression guidelines as it relates to the Freedom School for Palestine teach-in at Houston Hall. She stated that despite assurances from the Committee on Open Expression that the demonstration was protected, members of the Freedom School — including Brenner — were threatened with charges that were immediately dropped once they left the building. 

“If extralegal charges can be created and removed at the Vice Provost’s whim, how is the Center for Community Standards and Accountability not simply silencing political dissent?” Brenner asked. “Is our free speech a right, or is it to be removed as soon as it becomes inconvenient to the institution?”

Brenner said that she hoped there exists a future for the Penn community to “provide the essential education on Palestinian liberation that is being systematically silenced during an active humanitarian crisis.”

College senior Mira Sydow similarly criticized Penn’s adherence to its open expression policies, stating that she had been pressured by administrators in the past to withdraw remarks from an open forum and was arrested for participating in the Fossil Free Penn protest during last year’s Homecoming football game. 

She said that — while peaceful protesters must worry about permanent marks on their academic records — "Zionist" students and alumni have been able to dox and harass pro-Palestinian demonstrators online “to zero consequences.” 

Doctoral student and Falk Fellow in Jewish Studies Hilah Kohen condemned the threats made against students and faculty supporting pro-Palestinian causes, and the University's lack of response to threats. Kohen referenced an Israeli news article from November 2023, which detailed the Israel Foreign Ministry's intention to inflict consequences on antisemitic students, urging the University Council to stand with vulnerable professors and students.

College sophomore Iman Tednga criticized the University Council for allegedly changing their speech title in the meeting outline to “The University’s Response to the Israel-Hamas War” from their original title of “The University’s Response to the Genocide of the Palestinian People.” Tednga argued that — though Penn’s response to antisemitism was timely and instant — the same response was not provided to Palestinian and Muslim students.

College senior Evie Klein also emphasized the importance of free expression at Penn. 

“To exercise in academic debate is to invoke the spirit of the late Benjamin Franklin,” Klein said. “I take great concern in the recent trend of censorship on this campus that shields itself behind my identity as a Jewish student.”

Approximately ten attendees held up signs throughout the open forum reading messages such as “Ceasefire Now,” “Complicity is Violence,” and “Dissent is a Jewish Value / No Campus Free Speech Crackdown.”

The open forum also included a speech from postdoctoral fellow Victor Pablo Acero, who encouraged Penn to support and provide resources for interdisciplinary psychedelic research and innovation.

In the New Business portion of the meeting, five student representatives called on the University to expand dining plan exemptions for those with religious or dietary restrictions. Representatives from Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention, Transfer Student Organization, Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, and other organizations also raised concerns at the meeting.