U. Penn defends expression of controversial opinions

While other universities dither over removing speech restrictions, the University of Pennsylvania is taking steps to stay ahead of the curve in protecting free expression.

As part of Penn’s “Campaign for Community,” launched in the spring to promote open discussion of divisive issues, the university is asking faculty and staff members to serve as “Open Expression Monitors” tasked with ensuring that free speech is not subordinated to outrage or controversy.

“One of the most vital ways for faculty and staff to promote this freedom to hear, express and debate various views is to serve as an Open Expression Monitor,” Provost Vincent Price said in a press release. “Monitors attend meetings or demonstrations to ensure that Penn’s robust Guidelines on Open Expression are followed, supporting the principles of open expression at the heart of our identity as a community of diverse viewpoints.”

The school provides further details about the Monitor program on its website, saying Open Expression Monitors are dispatched to meetings and demonstrations that “may involve violations of the Guidelines” at the discretion of the Vice Provost.

Once selected, “the Monitor’s role is to protect the rights of the meeting or demonstration participants to express their opinions in non-disruptive ways, as well as to protect the rights of other members of the University community to conduct normal business.”

Penn’s “Guidelines on Open Expression” are uncommonly rigorous in their observance of First Amendment rights, and are backed by a permanent Committee on Open Expression responsible for arbitrating disputes over interpretation of policies and ensuring they are enforced reasonably.

In fact, the guidelines were cited by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education as contributing to Penn’s inclusion among the 18 schools that were awarded a “green light” rating in FIRE’s recent “Spotlight on Speech Codes” report. In contrast, The College Fix recently reported that not a single one of the 160 schools contacted last month by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) have responded to his request for information about how they will revise their speech policies after receiving “red light” ratings from FIRE in the same report.

Students seem to be reacting positively to Penn’s refusal to rest on its free speech laurels, judging from a staff editorial in The Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper applauding the university for “maintaining its firm commitment to freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of speech” by implementing the Monitor program at a time when many other schools are resisting calls to eliminate excessive speech restrictions.

“At colleges across the country, there have been countless incidents where students and speakers have faced opposition from their peers and administrators for their controversial stances on hot-button issues,” the editorial asserts, offering several examples in which controversial speakers have been disinvited or marginalized in response to the outrage of those who disagree with them.

“In these cases, it would be an egregious overstepping of boundaries for the Open Expression Monitors to prevent student groups from taking the actions that they feel are necessary,” the editors point out, “but we hope if similar cases arise in the future at Penn, the administration will encourage groups to stand up to the backlash and assert their right to host speakers and events that may seem unpalatable, controversial, or ‘wrong’.”

Spokespersons for the University of Pennsylvania did not respond to Campus Reform’s requests for comment in time for publication.

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