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Cry for free speech as pro-Palestine encampment spreads to Penn

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(The Center Square) – As campus protests intensify over the war between Hamas and Israel, so do the tensions between free speech and antisemitism at Pennsylvania colleges.

On Thursday, the Penn Alumni Free Speech Alliance hosted Victoria Coates, former deputy national security advisor to former President Donald Trump, to talk about free speech and what the future holds.

Meanwhile, two blocks away, Penn students began to construct a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” copying other pro-Palestinian protesters elsewhere. Campus officials said they will respect peaceful protest and punish disruptive or violent actions.

Public and private universities in recent days have had pro-Palestinian encampments sprout up from New York to Texas to California. Public campuses must balance the enforcement of rules and order against First Amendment protections, while private universities have more leeway in restricting speech.

By evening, dozens of students gathered on Penn’s College Green and erected about 15 tents. The Ben Franklin statue at the center of the green sported a keffiyeh. About a dozen police officers stood watch and the scene remained calm as a student organizer read off the names of professors killed in Palestine.

Signs proclaimed “Penn says ceasefire now; protect our freedom of speech;” “Intifada, Intifada: Globalize the Intifada;” “People Power: West Philly to the West Bank;” and “Penn, stop engineering genocide.”

Off to the side, the Revolutionary Communists of America set up a table encouraging fellow communists to get organized.

“Where we find ourselves in 2024,” Coates said, the free speech climate is “just overtly poisoned. I think the events of Oct. 7 did not cause what has been revealed, but it triggered it. It was as if they were waiting for the opportunity for this very blatant, aggressive, potentially violent antisemitism out into the open.”

Coates, a Penn alumnae, noted that free speech issues have haunted the private Ivy League university since she was a student in the 1990s, but it’s become a live issue in recent months.

She said some protesters have the goal to legitimize and normalize antisemitism on campus.

The Penn Alumni Free Speech Alliance, formed last winter, advocates for the university to “adopt a public commitment to free speech” and choose a president who is committed to free speech principles.

“We want to provide a platform for free speech on campus and to model respectful discourse,” Free Speech Alliance member Alexander McCobin said, who hosted the conversation with Coates.

Beyond Middle East tensions, Penn has been criticized for its attempts to sanction Amy Wax, a conservative law professor. In athletics, a student swimming three years for the Penn men’s team decided to swim for the women’s team, leading to heavy scrutiny for the school and the administration’s instructions to other women’s team members.

Penn’s free speech tensions aren’t unique. A review of Pennsylvania colleges by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression found 10 state schools had poor speech climates and only two earned its highest ranking.

FIRE has also issued explanations for students of what’s a protected form of protest and what’s unlawful conduct.

“Your college shouldn’t punish you or your student group more harshly than other groups in similar circumstances because administrators found your message upsetting, offensive, divisive, or because it drew ire, demanded extra security, or prompted counter-protest,” FIRE says.

The campus climate, Coates said, remains intolerant and illiberal.

“They want their position to be accepted and they want at least threats of violence against those who do not share their views to be acceptable,” Coates said.

Though she condemned ongoing campus protests as antisemitism, she emphasized the importance of protecting free speech and normalizing tolerance.

“I have no objection to anyone protesting for the Palestinian cause, but what they’re doing now is akin to yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” Coates said.

Violent reactions to certain opinions have become accepted, she said, and campuses will be “unlivable” if intolerance of different opinions doesn’t change.

“One group gets privileged and the other doesn’t. That has to end,” she said. “I don’t think we’re learning our lesson about First Amendment rights selectively applied.”

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