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Penn Faculty for Justice Palestine and pro-Israel groups have both protested in front of College Hall. Credit: Jean Park , Abhiram Juvvadi

If you’re chronically online at Penn, you’ve likely come across reports of our University’s many appearances in court. Much of the campus conversation on Penn’s legal involvements has been clouded by individuals prioritizing their own experiences at the expense of understanding, or even just acknowledging, those of others. Perhaps this phenomenon owes to recent upsets in discourse; The establishment, privilege, and whiteness have become so integral to conversation that we’re hypersensitive to any fellow classmate or faculty member’s possible complicity in some global conflict. 

For instance in March, professors Huda Fakhreddine and Eve M. Troutt Powell — alongside the Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine group — filed a lawsuit against Penn, alleging a sort of McCarthyism that roots out those with pro-Palestinian views. The complaint challenges the release of documents to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce for an investigation into campus antisemitism. These documents include private student files and records of the controversial Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which was hosted by Fakhreddine. The plaintiffs seek to prevent potential misuse or misrepresentation of information in said documents. However, critics perceive the lawsuit filed by the pro-Palestine professors as an attempt to obstruct transparency and accountability regarding incidents of antisemitism. Therefore, can the lawsuit actually correspond with the non-negotiable nature of open expression on university campuses?

I could continue my usual spiel on how the lawsuit would inevitably escalate tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups on campus. But I won’t start that conversation now. In any zero-sum conflict, it’s difficult to refrain from applying past grievances to the present. Particularly after the United Nations Security Council’s recent vote to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the consequent strain in US-Israel relations, Penn’s superficial activists have more opportunities to credit the random Arab, Muslim, or Jewish Penn student with political wrongdoings. 

So, I think that I should let down my usual pessimism and highlight how the lawsuit can abate the defamatory stakes of campus activism. After all, I was a bit too flattered by the parallels between the lawsuit’s wording and my earlier critique of Penn’s “Israelism” ban. Maybe I’d acquired an intuition in political forecasting. Unfortunately, a day of midterms quashed my ego. 

But I digress. 

It hasn’t gone past me that parsing through the legal jargon of case summaries is not the most exciting prospect. Therefore, to clarify the intent of the plaintiffs, I want to emphasize that Penn has specifically received a voluntary compliance letter, or a writ for University representatives and other concerned parties to voluntarily appear in court. To put it briefly, the court may order both the defendants and plaintiffs to produce records or testify. This seems like standard procedure for any legal proceeding, but it’s important to note that notice letters are directly addressed by the Office of General Counsel, Penn's representative as a corporate entity in legal matters. That is to say, the Office can effectively communicate with the issuing authority on behalf of the University. Thus, the Office can efficiently advocate for broad University interests — including those of, for better or worse, donors — while reducing the risks of miscommunication. 

Clearly, we can assume that Penn will not be in a particularly unfavorable position during hearings. 

In terms of the actual proceedings, the lawsuit filed by the pro-Palestine professors, if successful, may establish a legal precedent regarding the protection of privacy rights and academic freedom in similar cases involving investigations into sensitive topics. This outcome could be beneficial for all members of the Penn community, including those with pro-Israel views, by providing clearer guidelines for privacy rights and academic freedom. As doxxing and desecrating private facilities become aspects of campus politics, the lawsuit will allow any politically inclined individual to participate in subsequent legal proceedings without fear of retribution.

In light of these legal matters, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has introduced legislation that could tie federal, higher education funding to an institution's stance on campus free speech. The proposed bill — which follows a wider dialogue on academic freedom at Penn — specifically aims to reinforce institutional neutrality. Therefore, colleges seeking Title IV funding must disclose policies related to speech, association, and religion. Democrats fear the bill may protect extreme rhetoric under the guise of free speech. The bill ultimately advanced to the House floor by a 24-14 vote, strictly along party lines.

There’s been a strange, almost unjustified conflation of left-wing politics with a stance more critical of the Israeli government and vice versa. But the free speech argument critiqued by liberals in light of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s bill is actually what, perhaps unintentionally, drives the similarly liberal lawsuit against Penn. By seeking to safeguard privacy rights, this effort effectively benefits students and faculty with pro-Israel views whose exercise of the First Amendment could be disincentivized by the disclosure of sensitive information. That’s not to say that the actions of both parties are without fault. But the resurfaced accusations of McCarthyism raise wider questions of University interests and the purification of the Penn bubble from perceived hate speech. And consequently, the lawsuit allows us to reach a critical junction at which we can finally reassess our commitment to protecting both student rights and dignity. 

MRITIKA SENTHIL is a first year studying Management and Russian & East European Studies from Columbia, S.C. Her email is