by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
On October 2, five days before Hamas slaughtered 1,400 Israelis in cold blood, the University of Pennsylvania issued a confidential memo to trustees about the school’s commitment to free speech.
Penn was facing blowback over the Palestine Writes festival, an event sponsored by several university departments that brought a number of anti-Semites to campus, including former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, who has referred to Jews as “kikes,” worn Nazi uniforms on stage, and emblazoned inflatable pigs with Jewish stars.
The memo, obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, came from university president Liz Magill and board of trustees chairman Scott Bok. It explained why the festival had been allowed to take place. “Penn does not regulate the content of speech or symbolic behavior,” Magill and Bok wrote, including speech “incompatible” with the school’s values. Noting that Magill had condemned Waters in a public letter to the Anti-Defamation League, the memo added that faculty members were free to invite speakers with “hateful views,” provided they do not pose “an imminent threat of harm.”
Now, as donors revolt over the school’s equivocal response to Hamas’s rampage, Penn’s pronouncements about free speech are likely to complicate its approach to a separate controversy—or at least to highlight the hypocrisy of the school’s administrators.
As Penn officials have stood by arguing they are helpless to police anti-Semitic speech on campus, they have also been trying to revoke tenure from a controversial law professor, alleging that her classroom and extramural utterances amount to discriminatory conduct that has “harmed” students.
Penn announced in January of 2022 that it would seek to sanction Amy Wax after she said that the United States would be “better off with fewer Asians.” She has since been locked in bureaucratic combat with the school over a litany of other statements that Penn claims “undermines” its “core mission”: attracting a “diverse student body to an inclusive educational environment.”