Free Speech vs. DEI – Learnings from the UPenn Newsflow

Student protests at UPennStudent protests at UPenn

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” 

The First Amendment is the cornerstone of the United States’ history and culture. While the amendment protects from government persecution, it also applies to public colleges and universities. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states, “Restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, violating the Constitution. Such restrictions deprive students of their right to invite speech they wish to hear, debate speech with which they disagree, and protest speech they find bigoted or offensive.”

Yet, free speech on college campuses has been a topic of furious debate with passionate supporters on both sides. Free speech absolutists say limiting free expression is an impasse, especially when the college administration makes choices. The concerns are valid: where do you draw the line between free speech and hateful (or dangerous) conduct? And how do you ensure that the policies and standards are uniformly applied? Furthermore, the absolutists argue that colleges should champion free speech and diversity of ideas, even controversial ones, rather than inculcating a single viewpoint among students that may not represent the real world.

On the other hand, the opposing side believes that promoting diversity and inclusion on a college campus is paramount. They argue that the benefits of free speech aren’t always evenly distributed. K-Sue Park, a Professor of Law at UCLA, believes that the First Amendment benefits economically and racially privileged groups. For example, imagine if minority groups held the infamous Charlottesville rally. Then, it’s often used as a diversion tactic to use offensive symbols and speeches, which hurt the broader student community. Therefore, universities and colleges must find the right balance between unobstructed speech and making everyone feel included. However, despite that, this debate has been ongoing for more than a decade and has not received the attention it deserves, except occasionally when A-list stand-up comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Bill Maher, stopped performing on college campuses. However, all of that changed over the last couple of months when UPenn President Liz Magill resigned under intense political backlash stemming from her responses to questions on free speech.

To quickly recap what happened at UPenn: it all started when a “Palestinian Art and Culture” festival was organized on the university’s campus in September (importantly, not organized by the University). The festival celebrated Palestinian writers, filmmakers, and artists but also included Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters and Marc Lamont Hill, both of whom had made anti-Semitic comments in the past. The festival attracted furious backlash from donors and Jewish groups for promoting anti-Semitism on the campus. The University condemned anti-Semitism in an official statement, but it wasn’t enough for the detractors. The issue snowballed and gained significant momentum after Hamas brutally attacked Israel on Oct 7th. The attack and Israel’s subsequent fierce response quickly escalated the already volatile situation at UPenn. The university reportedly saw a significant and dangerous increase in both antisemitic as well as anti-Palestine incidents, most of which involved incendiary speeches, but some also amounted to violent threats. While UPenn appeared to be the most impacted campus, they weren’t the only Ivy League to face such challenges. Soon after, House Republicans convened a Confessional hearing on rising anti-Semitism on campuses, during which Representative Stefanik asked Harvard, MIT, and UPenn Presidents if “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate their school’s code of conduct. Many felt their responses should have been unequivocally yes, but they were too legalistic and lacked moral clarity, inviting even more intense backlash and forcing the UPenn president to resign in the aftermath. The resignation didn’t cure the problems but put the debate over free speech front and center.

Moving forward, university administrators need to thread the needle, but the bottom line should be that no student or group should feel targeted or harassed. Being and feeling safe should be the guiding principles for rules and policies. As for the student body, here are some lessons we must take to deal with similar situations in our future or current institutions. 

First, misinformation played a massive and central role in exacerbating the situation, and it’s likely not unique to UPenn. In today’s world, where information (true or not) spreads quickly through social media, it’s become easier to rouse a group for your cause. USA Today fact-checked a viral Instagram post that showed pro-Palestinian protestors shouting, “We want Jewish genocide.” The fact-check revealed that it was misinformation; they were saying, “We charge you with genocide” to Israel and not to the Jewish community as a whole. Similar misinformation could have been a source of Representative Stefanik’s question in an actual Congressional hearing.

Additionally, it’s easy to extrapolate one person or a small group’s views to the broader community. We often tend to extrapolate one person’s views as representative of the whole group when it aligns with our prejudices. Interestingly, opposite situations lead us to focus on the bad apple’s individuality rather than a trait associated with the community. Try to analyze the information as if you were in the other person’s shoes or had views that were exactly opposite of yours; this simple trick imparts a perspective that most of us often miss.

Consider that there could be extraneous interests inflaming the situation for their benefit. It’s easy to imagine how the political class leveraged the UPenn (and other Ivy League Colleges) situation to further their agenda. Moreover, UPenn donors and influential personnel such as former ambassadors and hedge fund managers, while not necessarily driven by self-interests, also used the power of their funds to advance a cause or take a side, rather than trying to diffuse a situation. A hedge fund manager even doxed the students participating in pro-Palestine protests, which likely further alienated the two groups.  All these actions didn’t allow people in the middle of the firestorm (the student body and the college administration) to make independent decisions.

Most importantly, students need to realize that everyone has more than one personality trait. Defining someone or forming opinions based solely on one trait, such as race or religion, is a recipe for disaster. Spend time getting to know other traits or what makes others interesting, and the campus will be more harmonious. These prejudices reflect our society and will reflect in the student body; that’s where the administration’s (or the student leaders’) focus and attention should be. Provide students with opportunities to know each other better and understand the person they are, not just the person they appear to be. Rules against harassment are important and much needed on various campuses, but changing the thought process and culture might have a more sustainable impact. Until then, the debate will continue.

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