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University of Pennsylvania is misrepresenting its speech code rating from advocacy group

‘A mark of internal inconsistency at best and hypocrisy at worst’

The University of Pennsylvania lost its coveted “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education this fall, after the civil liberties group noticed a pair of policies that undermine free speech on campus.

But it’s still publicly portraying itself as a green-light school – and FIRE isn’t happy about it.

In a blog post Friday, FIRE rebuked the Ivy League university for its response to a letter from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Last month ACTA warned the university that its downgrading by FIRE should be an “alarm bell that causes the campus to commit to a better culture of free speech and inquiry.” Penn was already on the ropes with both ACTA and FIRE for its sanctions against law professor Amy Wax, an outspoken conservative.

As is increasingly common for universities called out for infringements of academic freedom and free speech, Penn responded in a perfunctory one-page letter. The university “is aware of the yellow light rating,” wrote Associate Vice President Lizann Boyle Rode, but it is “not related to Penn’s Open Expression policies or practices, which continue to receive a green light rating from FIRE.”

The yellow-light rating, however, applies to Penn as a whole, as well as to the two policies on sexual harassment that formed the basis of FIRE’s downgrade. It applies to schools with “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”

FIRE warned Penn in January that its 13-year green-light rating was at risk because of those two policies, which use a subjective standard to determine sexual harassment: whether verbal speech has the “effect” of creating an “offensive” environment. The university never responded, according to FIRE. (Useful to know: Penn is on the same street as FIRE in Philadelphia.)

Civil liberties group asks … by The College Fix on Scribd

“Penn’s response [to ACTA] misrepresents, in two critical ways, what the university’s yellow light rating means,” Samantha Harris, vice president for procedural advocacy at FIRE, wrote Friday. “Given that Penn may be responding along these lines to anyone who expresses concern over FIRE’s decision to revoke its green light rating, we felt it was important to set the record straight.”

Maintaining policies that threaten speech while proclaiming a “stated commitment to free expression” is “not a badge of honor,” Harris wrote, but “a mark of internal inconsistency at best and hypocrisy at worst”:

If Penn had wanted to “continue to ensure” its policies protected academic freedom, it would have responded to FIRE’s concerns and revised its speech codes. As it stands, Penn maintains sexual harassment policies that pose a direct threat to academic freedom — just witness the number of faculty around the country who are disciplined for germane classroom speech under overly broad sexual harassment policies like Penn’s.

Penn’s Boyle Rode also falsely characterizes FIRE’s speech code ratings as encompassing “practices,” when in fact they only evaluate written policies, Harris continued.

The university cannot “avoid scrutiny of its speech codes and its practices by hiding behind its open expression policies,” which “only serve as a reminder of how far Penn has fallen.”

Read the blog post, ACTA’s letter and Penn’s response.

MORE: Penn throws away stellar free speech rating it’s maintained for 13 years

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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