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On Free Speech

April 10, 2002

During my first year as President, our campus confronted three unrelated incidents that aroused conflicted and strong responses -- research funding received by a faculty member from an outside foundation accused of supporting neo-Nazi and racist agendas; hateful, and racist comments in a student's article on Haiti published by a campus publication; and the retrospective exhibit of Andres Serrano's photographs at the ICA, especially the notorious "Piss Christ."

Not surprisingly, the common cry in response to each of the incidents was, "Why doesn't the University stop this?"

Our campus has confronted this question again this week as students react to hateful emails and newsgroup postings.

Periodically, we need to remind ourselves why we must go to great lengths to protect and defend free speech on campus. Compromise on this fundamental right stunts our intellectual growth and launches a university on the slippery slope to censorship. I first articulated this view in my "Welcome Back" message in the Almanac on January 17, 1995. Its argument and themes remain relevant and instructive today. Whenever controversy and conflict flare up on campus, fostering a dialogue is still the best way to learn and grow.

Words are powerful. I hope the words in this message will empower you.

"We 'permit' these events because, first, in truth, we can never wholly prevent them -- and in each of these recent cases, those responsible acted legally, were clearly identified, and did not hide behind the illicit screens of anonymity or vandalism. Second, we permit them because tolerating the intolerable idea is the price of the freedom of expression without which we cannot survive as an academic institution. But third, and most important, we permit them because doing so is the only way to change things. Hearing the hateful is the only way to identify and educate the hater. Seeing the offensive is a necessary step to understanding and rejecting the perspective from which it comes. Seriously considering even the most distasteful idea is the absolute precondition to arguing effectively against it.

"Universities are places in our society where freedom of expression serves the search for truth and justice. By mission and by tradition, universities are open forums in which competing beliefs, philosophies, and values contend. Some will appear ill-informed, disrespectful, vengeful; in exposing and challenging them, their flaws become self-evident. That is why we do not close off debate by official pronouncement. That is why we must use such incidents to promote debate, to spotlight the hater, and to expose the hateful to the light of day. …

"… The University administration's job is to support . . . dialogue and debate, not to cut it off; to create an environment in which we can educate each other, not one in which doctrine or orthodoxy are legislated from on high.

"Will we provide 'moral leadership' to the Penn community? Absolutely. But moral leadership requires suasion not censorship, conscience not coercion. Most of all, it requires insisting that we--all of us--talk about what troubles us. We must all use such occasions to fulfill the University's educational mission for each other. Part of that mission is to educate for leadership, and we must each take responsibility to respond to our own moral compass in ways that better the life of our community.

"Words are the life-blood of our university. For all their limitations, even if they sometimes drive us apart, words are what bind us together in the academy. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the power of words. He believed that we must use them to talk about the difficult and painful issues that divide us, about race and about religion, about politics and about power, about gender and about identity. But I urge you to choose carefully the words you use. The words of hatred and bigotry, insult and ignorance, destroy dialogue and community and must be answered. I hope the day will come when no one in our community will use such words or inflict pain on others with intent. But until then, when we are faced with words of offense and awfulness, we must draw those who use them into the dialogue of ideas. That is the essential precondition of the dynamics of change. That is why we must censure speech, but never censor speakers.

"… [T]his community has found that we cannot, with policies and procedures, legislate the unlegislatable. But, as a community, we must demand adherence to the norms of rational argument and simple civility, which are so important to furthering the dialogue of ideas. We must learn what Dr. King called "obedience to the unenforceable," learning to show the care and compassion for each other that no law or regulation can enforce.….

"… [L]et us raise the level of the discourse, dispense with the intention to hurt, and each take more responsibility for all the members of our community. …"

Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 30, April 16, 2002


April 16, 2002
Volume 48 Number 30

Both the School of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Medicine announce the recipients of their annual teaching awards.
Gearing up for Open Enrollment means thinking about how the changes in benefits could influence which medical or dental plan is most cost-effective.
President Judith Rodin protects and defends free speech on campus, reiterating a message from her January 1995 Welcome Back which is still relevant today.
SEAS announces a new Ennis Professor, named for Dr. Alfred Ennis (Moore School '28).

Penn participates in the Franklin Institute Laureates Symposium, hosting four symposia on campus which are open to the University community.