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Guest columnist Zack Ben-Ezra argues that Penn and its leadership must uphold free speech and academic freedom. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

In the past week, much has been written about the Gaza Solidarity Encampment that sprung up on Penn’s campus. Much has missed the point. 

Let me be clear and unequivocal before I proceed: I strongly believe in protecting free speech, especially speech I disagree with, but that protection must be applied even handedly and is not without sensible content-neutral limitations. 

Free speech and academic freedom are paramount to a productive university campus. A university should be a place where ideas are freely exchanged, where we encounter new ideas that make us uncomfortable, and where we ultimately grow as a community in the pursuit of some greater truth. Not everyone needs to agree, nor should they, but we must remain respectful and even-handed to ensure that ideas continue to flow, and the marketplace of ideas continues to flourish. 

The Penn community and its leadership has utterly failed to even handedly protect free speech on campus. 

No one has the right to set up an encampment in violation of university policy — it doesn’t matter what you are protesting or on which side you are. That is a simple viewpoint-neutral time, place, and manner restriction — a  fundamental principle of our free speech jurisprudence. 

In his Apr. 26 university-wide email, Interim Penn President Larry Jameson himself acknowledged that the “encampment itself violates the University’s facilities policies” and that “harassing and intimidating comments and actions by some of the protesters, which were reported and documented by many in our community, violate Penn’s open expression guidelines and state and federal law, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.” Jameson then ordered the encampment to disband.

That was more than a week ago, and the encampment remains active on College Green.

It truly perplexes me how an Ivy League institution actively being sued under Title VI can simultaneously admit that there are Title VI violations on their campus and then take no action to stop them. This is a true failure by university administration, and they deserve to be held accountable. 

Imagine a situation in which a pro-police encampment sprouted up on campus in the wake of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Imagine that the encampment was the same size as the Gaza Solidarity Encampment and was similarly disruptive to campus life and destructive of campus property. Now ask yourself, would that pro-police encampment be tolerated to the same extent that the current encampment is? I have a hard time believing it and so should you. 

Don’t believe me? Look no further than the University’s treatment of its own faculty. Professor Amy Wax is currently being investigated and threatened with sanctions for comments she made about racial and ethnic minorities. Let me be clear: I am not here to defend Wax. Her comments deserve to be investigated, and possibly sanctioned. But ask yourself, is the University’s treatment of Wax being fairly applied to other faculty members? I have witnessed members of Penn faculty call for an intifada as part of on-campus protests and have seen Penn lecturer Dwayne Booth’s cartoons that invoke deeply troubling antisemitic tropes. Where are the university-wide investigations into these faculty members? Where is the discussion on university sanctions against them? They are nowhere to be found. 

Penn and its leadership must work to genuinely uphold free speech and academic freedom on campus. University policy must be applied fairly and in a viewpoint-neutral manner to all members of the campus community. That means protecting speech when appropriate and restricting speech when in violation of reasonable, viewpoint-neutral policies — whether we agree or disagree with what is being said. 

We have the privilege of being a part of one of the most prestigious universities in the world. This is a privilege of which many of our grandparents could only dream. This privilege comes with the responsibility to engage in discourse in a fair and even-handed manner. It’s about time we start living up to this privilege, and it’s about time Penn’s leadership and faculty started acting as role models in leading the way. 

ZACK BEN-EZRA is a second-year J.D. student at Penn Carey Law School. His email is