At Penn, a Conflict over 'Free Speech and Free Thought'

May 23, 1993|By LINDA SEEBACH

Universities should be "havens for free speech and free thought," Hillary Rodham Clinton told a Commencement Day audience at the University of Pennsylvania last Monday. The platitudes ignored Penn's history of limiting free speech if it might offend "politically correct" groups.

The university has vigorously pursued a charge of racial harassment against a white student for allegedly offensive remarks, while it languidly investigates whether anybody's freedom of expression was violated when a group of black students trashed an entire issue of the campus newspaper to protest an allegedly offensive column.

Penn's glaringly unequal treatment of these two cases cried out for comment, but Mrs. Clinton preferred safe generalities.

"What we have to do here at this university and in this country is to find a way to celebrate our diversity and debate our differences without fracturing our communities," she said, bestowing an obligatory bouquet on the idea of colleges as "havens for free speech and free thought."

Penn is pretty thoroughly fractured along racial lines already, but it would have been tactless to mention that under the circumstances. Penn's president, Sheldon Hackney, has been nominated by President Clinton as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and his selective enthusiasm for the First Amendment is proving a definite embarrassment.

Freshman Eden Jacobowitz, who found himself charged with racial harassment after he called a group of noisy revelers "water buffalo," said Wednesday he probably won't know until classes start next fall whether the university will try to punish him for the January incident.

A group of about a dozen African-American women were singing and making noise outside the dormitory around midnight Jan. 13, and many students shouted at the women to shut up.

The women complained to campus police that some of the shouts included racial epithets, but no one admitted to using any such terms. Only Mr. Jacobowitz willingly told the police what he had said.

Mr. Jacobowitz, who was born in Israel and educated partly in Hebrew-language schools, used the literal translation of a Hebrew word, "behayma." The idiomatic meaning is more like "dodo," something a mother might say to rebuke a child who had done something thoughtless or inconsiderate.

"Obviously it was a response to the noise," said Mr. Jacobowitz's faculty adviser, Penn history professor Alan Charles Kors. Mr. Jacobowitz is a scapegoat, Mr. Kors said, the only student unwise enough to admit he noticed the women were black.

"Eden is the most innocent kid I've ever met, in several senses," Mr. Kors said.

Mr. Jacobowitz was charged under the university's harassment policy, which prohibits "abusive language or conduct" that is intended to cause "direct injury to an identifiable individual, on the basis of his or her race, ethnicity, or national origin."

Mr. Kors said campus judiciary official Robin Read told Mr. Jacobowitz that water buffalo are large, black, primitive animals living in Africa. Then she asked whether he was having racist thoughts during his outburst.

The university's investigation was entirely one-sided, Mr. Jacobowitz says, and its procedures lack due process.

"They think the judicial system is great, they stand by it, but then they look like idiots and try to hide it all," he said. "If I didn't make this public, they'd still be jumping all over me."

After more than two months, Mr. Jacobowitz was offered a "settlement" that he terms "ridiculous." He would have been required to make a formal apology, hold a "diversity" seminar in his dorm, agree to two years' dormitory probation, and have a letter placed in his permanent file noting he had violated the racial harassment code.

He refused.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union have said they will file suit if Penn tries to punish Mr. Jacobowitz.

Contrast this with the university's tepid response to the newspaper incident.

Stephen Glass, executive editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian, said he didn't know yet whether or how the university would punish protesters who trashed an entire issue of the student newspaper because they were angry at one of its columnists.

jTC Mr. Glass said President Hackney won't take a strong stand on freedom of expression.

"He's bending to political pressure," Mr. Glass said, "and he won't defend free speech when the attack comes from the left."

The Daily Pennsylvanian attracted unfavorable attention both from the university administration and black students when it began publishing a biweekly column by junior engineering student Greg Pavlik. In one column, Mr. Pavlik commended Penn for failing to observe Martin Luther King Day, citing Dr. King's socialist economics, his "lechery" and his plagiarized Ph.D. dissertation.

In another, he condemned the "tolerance brigade."

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