Fall of Penn president brings university free speech to crossroads

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The ouster of University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill, four days after her testimony before Congress on whether students should be punished if they called for genocide, was a victory for those who believe pro-Palestinian protesters have gone too far. far in his speech.

For many Jews, protest slogans such as “intifada revolution” and “from the river to the sea” are anti-Semitic and threatening, and proof of a double standard. Universities, they say, have ignored their fears and requests for safety, while creating a battalion of administrators dedicated to diversity and equity programs and rushing to protect their students.

“His moral blindness when it comes to anti-Semitism is especially troubling when it appears to conflict so dramatically with his attitude toward prejudice and hatred against other groups,” Kenneth Marcus, director of the Brandeis Center, a Jewish civil rights group, told Mrs. Magill's resignation.

But for many veteran observers of the campus speech wars, this is a terrible time for free speech.

After all, Magill's problems began not with the hearing, but with a conference of Palestinian writers held on campus in September. Penn donors asked her to cancel the event, which they said included anti-Semitic speakers, but she refused on free speech grounds.

“What just happened is they canceled Liz Magill,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at Penn who writes about free speech. “They reinforced the cancel culture. What this means is that there will be even more fear and anxiety around what can be said and how, and that cannot be good for the university.”

The Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors characterized recent attacks on universities as distortions that threaten the ability of students and faculty to teach, study and discuss Israel and Palestine.

“These attacks strike at the heart of an educational institution's mission: to foster open, critical, and rigorous research and teaching that can produce knowledge for the public good in a democratic society,” the association said in a statement released Saturday.

Penn and Harvard are not bound by the First Amendment, but each has pledged to offer the same protection. On Tuesday, Harvard's board of trustees said it stood by the university's president, Claudine Gay, who had come under fire after testifying alongside Magill. “We defend open discourse and academic freedom,” the board said in a statement.

However, critics are quick to point out that universities have not always done so consistently. For example, in 2021 an MIT department canceled a public lecture by Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, because he had publicly opposed some aspects of affirmative action. Stanford law students booed a conservative federal judge who had worked against gay marriage and transgender rights.

At Penn, conservatives condemned an effort to punish Amy Wax, a tenured law professor, for a series of actions she took, including some that are protected by academic freedom, such as bringing in a white supremacist to speak before her class.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist who opposes suppression of free speech, said speech itself, no matter how ugly, should not be punished. But, he said, universities have not proven to be the best defenders of unfettered debate.

“The problem with university presidents saying that calls for genocide are not punishable is that they have such a ridiculous record of defending free speech in the past that they have no basis to stand on,” said Dr. Pinker in an interview. .

The question is what happens from here.

At Penn there is already a debate about changing the codes of expression.

The board of advisors for the university's Wharton business school, which helped lead the charge against Magill, recently recommended in a letter that Penn modify the university's code of conduct.

Among the proposals: Students and teachers will not “engage in hate speech, whether veiled or explicit, that incites violence.” Nor will they “use language that threatens the physical safety of community members.” And anyone who violates the rules would be “subject to immediate discipline.”

But several observers warn that greater restrictions on freedom of expression are not the appropriate solution.

Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America, a free speech advocacy group, said Wharton's proposal was vague and would threaten to ban a wide range of speech. It would be inapplicable he wroteand it would probably be counterproductive.

Dr. Pinker argued in a recent essay that banning anti-Semitic speech It wouldn't improve the situation. He said colleges should adopt clear policies, which “could start with the First Amendment,” but then draw a line against behavior that gets in the way of a college's educational mission.

Therefore, it would be fine to carry signs, he said, but not booing or vandalism, which is already the standard at many universities. Gauntlets would also be banned to intimidate protesters who confront students walking to class.

Still, for Dr. Pinker the problems go beyond expression codes. He maintained that a university that was truly committed to free speech would reset its campus culture to be more accepting of different opinions. That would include, he said, “diversity of points of view” in hiring, as well as institutional neutrality on the issues of the day.

Harvard announced last month that, as part of its response to antisemitism, the university would “more fully integrate antisemitism into the work” of its Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

But rather than expanding the reach of diversity and equity programs, Dr. Pinker has called for the opposite. He maintains that these programs, which in his opinion should be stopped, impose “a uniformity of opinion, a hierarchy of victim groups and the exclusion of freethinkers.”

Scott Bok, who resigned as president of Penn's board of trustees when Ms. Magill resigned, questioned whether the school had become “too woke” and defended the need for diversity efforts. He recalled that the Penn University she attended in the 1980s did not have many black, Asian or Latino students. “We should not return to that world,” he wrote this week in an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

For Professor Zimmerman, a true commitment to the issue of free speech means that universities (and their critics) must accept that language sometimes offends.

Despite the uproar, Magill's comments at the congressional hearing were correct, he said. When deciding whether to discipline a student who calls for genocide, context matters.

When it comes to free speech, “there's no other way to say it: you either believe it or you don't,” Professor Zimmerman said. “And if you believe in it, it means protection for the atrocious things people say, unless they pose an immediate and direct threat to other people.”



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