Shadows of the ‘water buffalo’

December 2, 2005

Recent controversy surrounding a photograph of a sex scene marks at least the second time in just over a decade that the University has come under fire over free-speech issues.

Like the present case — in which the University initially sought to punish an Engineering junior who posted a photograph of a couple apparently having sex in an open Hamilton College House window on a Penn Internet server — the "water buffalo" incident of 1993 revolved around the issue of student rights to free speech in a university setting.

Then-College freshman Eden Jacobowitz leaned from the window of what is now Harnwell College House on Jan. 13 of that year and called a group of female black students passing by "water buffalo" in response to what he considered excessive noise.

Several of the students filed racial-harassment charges against Jacobowitz under a speech code that the University later revised, but they dropped the charges that May after the case received extensive national publicity.

Publications around the country picked up the story, including The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune.

The incident attracted additional attention because it unfolded at about the same time that Penn was receiving positive national attention for the nomination of then-University President Sheldon Hackney to lead the National Endowment for the Humanities. Hackney served as chairman of the NEH from 1993 to 1997.

Hackney, now a Penn History professor, would not comment on the water-buffalo incident.

Penn History professor Alan Kors, who defended both Jacobowitz in 1993 and the photographer this week, said both cases involve principles that are relevant on campuses nationwide.

"The issue is not the water-buffalo case," Kors said. "The issue is student rights anywhere and everywhere."

In this week’s case, the University originally brought charges of sexual harassment and violation of University policies against the student and asked that he effectively admit wrongdoing and write a letter of apology, among other sanctions.

However, the charges were dropped yesterday during a meeting between the student and the Office of Student Conduct.

Schools: University of Pennsylvania