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Two faculty members encourage Penn to keep its Open Expression Guidelines in mind when responding to the encampment on College Green. Credit: Jean Park

We write as faculty members seeking to sound an alarm. We urge Penn administrators and the Board of Trustees not to use police force against on-campus protesters. Real, good-faith negotiation is the path forward. First, because it is more likely to restore calm on our campus. Second, because our University, rightly, has already committed itself to upholding the principle of free expression.

We have had the privilege of working with many colleagues in attempts to strengthen that commitment to open expression. Such attempts go back decades. They should not be abandoned now.

Indeed, the University has agreed-upon procedures already in place. We have a long-standing Committee on Open Expression. This committee is advisory to the administration. It is charged with interpreting the University’s Guidelines on Open Expression. We value both the Guidelines and the Committee’s role. Both should be reviewed in times of calm — and honored in times of upheaval. They represent a foundation for the airing of a full range of content on campus and for finding ways to resolve conflicts when they arise. Now is exactly the kind of moment they were written for.

In a moment of real crisis, such as we face now, the Guidelines are indispensable because they focus on principles rather than content. A measure of this crucial significance is conveyed by the following assertion in the very Guidelines: “In case of a conflict between the principles of the Guidelines on Open Expression and other University policies, the Principles of the Guidelines shall take precedence.” This statement, taken seriously, opens the door for ongoing dialogue rather than punitive solutions in cases such as that of this encampment.

Some on our campus seek to use the Guidelines to undermine rather than support peaceful demonstrators. We argue against any attempt to manipulate the Guidelines in that way.

We urge everyone in our community to read them. These Guidelines were written for you.

The Guidelines must not be a means by which the University pursues the wholesale denial of rights of open expression for an entire group of peaceful protesters. There are mechanisms in place to address the actions of individuals who violate the guidelines. Any such actions should be investigated, with due process being paramount. We are particularly concerned about decisions to issue letters of referral to the Center for Community Standards and Accountability.   

We urge interim President Larry Jameson and Provost John L. Jackson, Jr. to truly protect and affirm “freedom of thought, inquiry, speech, and lawful assembly,” as outlined in our campus Guidelines on Open Expression. Above all, we urge them to continue to engage in direct dialogue with protesters rather than using the combination of police force and one-sided disciplinary action that has already been proven counter-productive.

Ann Farnsworth-Alvear

Associate Professor of History 

Zita Cristina Nunes 

Associate Professor of English

 *Both professor Farnsworth-Alvear and professor Nunes are former members of the Committee on Open Expression. The opinions expressed here are their own.