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The Fall of Penn’s President Brings Campus Free Speech to a Crossroads

The toppling of the University of Pennsylvania’s president, Elizabeth Magill — four days after her testimony before Congress on whether to punish students if they called for genocide — was a victory for those who believe that pro-Palestinian protesters have gone too far in their speech.

To many Jews, protest slogans like “intifada revolution” and “from the river to the sea” are antisemitic and threatening — and proof of a double standard. Universities, they say, have ignored their fears and pleas for security, while creating a battalion of administrators who are devoted to diversity and equity programs and are quick to protect their students.

“Their moral blindness when it comes to antisemitism is especially concerning when it appears to conflict so dramatically with their approach to bias and hate against other groups,” Kenneth Marcus, the head of the Brandeis Center, a Jewish civil rights group, said before Ms. Magill’s resignation.

For many longtime observers of the campus speech wars, however, this moment is a dire one for freedom of expression.

Ms. Magill’s troubles, after all, did not start with the hearing, but with a Palestinian writers’ conference that was held on campus in September. Donors to Penn asked her to cancel the event, which they said included antisemitic speakers, but she declined on the grounds of free speech.

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

Penn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors characterized the 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 the mission of an educational institution: 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 posted on Saturday.

Penn and Harvard are not bound by the First Amendment, but they each have committed to offering the same protection. On Tuesday, Harvard’s governing board said it stood behind the university’s president, Claudine Gay, who had come under fire after testifying alongside Ms. Magill. “We champion open discourse and academic freedom,” the board said in a statement.

Critics are quick to point out, however, that universities have not always done so consistently. For instance, in 2021 a department at M.I.T. called off a public lecture by Dorian Abbot, a University of Chicago geophysicist, because he had publicly opposed some aspects of affirmative action. Law students at Stanford heckled 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, like bringing a white supremacist to speak to her class.

Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard who opposes cracking down on free expression, said that speech by itself, however ugly, should not be punished. But, he said, universities have not made the best case for themselves as champions of unfettered debate.

“The problem with the university presidents saying that calls for genocide are not punishable is that they have such a risible record of defending free speech in the past that they don’t have a leg to stand on,” Dr. Pinker said in an interview.

The question is what happens from here.

At Penn, there is already a debate about changing speech codes.

The board of advisers at the university’s Wharton business school — who helped lead the charge against Ms. Magill — recently recommended in a letter that Penn amend the university’s code of conduct.

Among the proposals: Students and faculty 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 standards would be “subject to immediate discipline.”

But a number of observers warn that further restrictions on speech are not the right solution.

Jonathan Friedman, a director at PEN America, a free-expression advocacy group, said the Wharton proposal was vague and would threaten to ban a wide range of speech. It would be unenforceable, he wrote, and would probably backfire.

Dr. Pinker argued in a recent essay that forbidding antisemitic speech would not improve the situation. He said that universities should adopt clear policies, which “might start with the First Amendment,” but then draw a line at behavior that gets in the way of a university’s educational mission.

So carrying placards would be OK, he said, but not heckling or vandalism — which is already the standard at many universities. Also forbidden would be gauntlets of intimidating protesters who confront students walking to classes.

Still, to Dr. Pinker the issues are larger than just speech codes. He argued that a university that was truly committed to free speech would reset its campus culture to be more accepting of differing opinions. That would include, he said, “viewpoint diversity” in hiring, as well as institutional neutrality on 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 purview of diversity and equity programs, Dr. Pinker has called for the opposite. He argues that these programs, which he thinks should be curbed, enforce “a uniformity of opinion, a hierarchy of victim groups, and the exclusion of freethinkers.”

Scott Bok, who resigned as chairman of Penn’s board when Ms. Magill resigned, disputed that the school had become “too woke,” and he defended the need for diversity efforts. The Penn that he attended in the 1980s, he remembered, did not have many Black, Asian or Latino students. “We should not turn back to that world,” he wrote this week in an opinion article in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

For Professor Zimmerman, a true commitment to free speech issue means that universities — and their critics — must accept that language will sometimes offend.

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

When it comes to free speech, “there’s no other way to put it — either you believe in it or you don’t,” Professor Zimmerman said. “And if you believe in it, it means protection for heinous things that people say, unless they’re posing an immediate and direct threat to other people.”

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