Free-speech award goes to Penn professor

June 12, 2008

University of Pennsylvania history professor and free-speech advocate Alan Charles Kors defended the student who uttered the "water buffalo" comment at black female students in 1993 that pushed the university into a controversial national spotlight.

He backed another Penn student in 2005 who faced sexual-harassment charges after snapping pictures of two students having sex in front of a dorm-room window.

And remember the uproar in October 2006 when Penn President Amy Gutmann let her photo be taken with a student dressed like a suicide bomber?

She did nothing wrong, Kors said. And he had a right to wear the costume, as did those who blasted him for doing so, he said.

"You’ve got to have free speech for the speech that you hate as well as the speech that you love," the 40-year Penn veteran said in an interview yesterday.

For his free-speech work as well as his scholarship in European history, Kors received a $250,000 award last week from the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to strengthening American democratic capitalism.

Kors, 64, of Wallingford, is free to spend the money how he chooses.

He says he will use it to pay off college tuition for his two children, one a lawyer and the other a teacher.

Kors has spent much of his career advocating against growing political correctness on college campuses. He coauthored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on American Campuses in 1998.

He later cofounded and served as president and later chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which takes on cases of free speech at the nation’s colleges and universities. Its Web site is www.thefire.org

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," said Kors, who also has won several major teaching awards selected by students, alumni and the university.

He’s now chairman emeritus of the Philadelphia-based group, where he addressed a group of FIRE interns this week.

Universities have become more sensitive to exposure and media scrutiny, but problems persist on the nation’s campuses, he said. In the 1960s, universities were "centers of debate" and now have become subject to "political litmus tests," he said.

"There’s a natural tendency to find people who agree with you very bright and those that don’t not very bright. . . . Too many departments would rather clone themselves and have disciples than invite debate," he said.

As for Penn, it has improved in the area of student rights, Kors said. The university eventually dropped charges against the student who was charged with violating Penn’s speech code when he yelled a phrase that included "water buffalo" at black female students. After the "water buffalo" incident, Penn trustees scrapped the speech code. It also dropped charges against the student who snapped the sex pictures.

Kors dismissed the argument from some that defending free speech sometimes seems tantamount to defending racist or sexist speech.

"I think ignorance and bigotry is best overcome not by restricting speech but by having more speech," he said, "and allowing good arguments to overcome bad arguments."

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