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Celebrating Penn’s Protection of Controversial Speech

The University of Pennsylvania has made great strides since the infamous "water buffalo" incident of 1993, described in the opening chapter of The Shadow University, the 1998 book by FIRE founders Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate that launched FIRE in 1999. In today's Daily Pennsylvanian, Shelli Gimelstein highlights Penn's recent successes in protecting controversial speech not only in policy but also in practice.

The initiating event for this article was a controversial Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference concerning Israel, organized at Penn by the campus student organization PennBDS. It appears that the conference did not meet official resistance from Penn. Rather, as the controversy rose, according to Gimelstein:

In a Feb. 2 Daily Pennsylvanian guest column, Penn President Amy Gutmann and Board of Trustees Chair David Cohen wrote that, while the University disagreed with the positions espoused by BDS, "we recognize and respect their right to open expression."

Gimelstein also quotes Alan on the present situation at Penn:

"As long as Penn continues to protect freedom of expression with no double standards, which I believe it is currently doing, we all can and should live with speech we find wrong or wicked, to which the best response is further speech, legal protest and both intellectual and moral witness," he wrote in an email. "A university should be a place that encourages debate."

In addition, Gimelstein reports that "Penn today is considered a leader among universities in promoting freedom of speech and expression," noting that FIRE named Penn one of the nation's best universities for free speech (in The Huffington Post) and citing Penn's "green light" rating in FIRE's database of campus speech policies. This rating means that FIRE has not identified any policies at Penn that unduly restrict speech. 

Harvard, in contrast, has a "red light" rating for clearly and substantially violating its promises of free speech. Gimelstein interviewed FIRE's Director of Speech Code Research, Samantha Harris, who noted that Harvard even fired a professor who (in Gimelstein's words) had "expressed controversial views about Muslims in an Indian newspaper." Meanwhile, Penn President Gutmann said, "Academic freedom is fundamental to the central value of a university, and academic freedom demands that universities protect freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech."

Penn has set an admirable example, and FIRE is particularly grateful to Alan for encouraging Penn to be a defender of free speech even when it is deeply controversial.

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