UPenn admin reminds students that ‘freedom goes both ways’ after Brennan speech shutdown

After protesters shut down a speech by CIA Director John Brennan at the University of Pennsylvania last week, administrators are reminding students that freedom of speech does not confer the right to prevent others from speaking.

“As you exercise your right to free expression, it is critical that you also respect the rights of others to express their ideas and thoughts,” Provost Vincent Price and Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum told undergraduate students in an email Tuesday night, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “The freedom goes both ways.”

While the missive does not specifically reference Brennan, it comes just days after protesters—at least one of whom was a Penn student—repeatedly interrupted his scheduled appearance Friday night, eventually forcing the moderator to cancel the event early.

Officials responded to the first two interruptions, which featured small groups chanting slogans such as “drones kill kids” and “black lives matter,” by escorting the offenders out of the auditorium, The Daily Pennsylvanian reports. Following a third incident during the question-and-answer period, however, Law School Dean Theodore Ruger brought the proceedings to a close, resignedly telling the protesters, “[w]e’ve heard your views, we respect your views. What you’re doing now is silencing speech.”

Price and Swain-Cade McCoullum addressed that very issue in their email, saying, “members of our community will at times be confronted with ideas that they fundamentally oppose,” but insisting that “the solution is not to suppress the ideas we reject, but instead to counter those ideas with better ones.”

They also referred students to the university’s Guidelines on Open Expression, which are enforced by staff and faculty members known as “Open Expression Observers,” who monitor meetings and demonstrations upon request to ensure that no violations occur.

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Although most schools make similar rhetorical commitments to free expression, UPenn’s Guidelines have earned praise from the exacting Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which listed the school as one of just 22 “green light” institutions that do not seriously restrict freedom of speech.

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