Trashing Speech

Let's all have another laugh at the expense of the University of Pennsylvania. Or a cry, depending on how seriously you take these things.

I genuinely enjoy writing these pieces because they're obscenely easy. If you set 10 monkeys down in front of this Dell 210 Workstation, they could crank out columns like this with enough time before deadline to actually read Hamlet. That's because the University of Pennsylvania provides enough intellectual ammunition to supply an entire industry of nasty, lazy, hungover editorialists like me. And that's a pretty tall order, given how many people are nasty, lazy, hungover or some combination of the three. Luckily, Penn never lets us folks down. Here's their latest offering.

Early in the morning of April 15th, nine Black students took it upon themselves to rob the student body of the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian.

The entire press run, almost 14,000 copies, was chucked into dumpsters around campus because of, according to signs left in place of the papers, "the blatant and voluntary perpetuation of institutional racism against the Black Community by the DP and by the University. Sometimes inconvenience is worth the price. Think about it..." The signs were signed, "the Black Community."

Apparently, Mr. Community was angered by the views of Gregory Pavlik, whose column appears every Friday. And Community and his friends decided to show their disapproval by trashing the paper, presumably because they lacked the heavy machinery to throw Wharton in the dumpster.


The task of sorting out what happened and what should be done about it was left to Special Judicial Inquiry Officer Howard Arnold. He issued a report September 14th stating that the nine students involved in the theft would not be punished.

Loosely condensed, Arnold's argument is as follows:

I won't punish these people because: (pick one or more of the following):

1) I didn't catch their friends. According to the Special JIO report, "the actions of the individual students were part of a larger protest involving many more students."

2) This happened before. In 1987, a Wharton faculty member removed about 1,000 copies of the paper which contained a story about a professor accused of raping his step-grandaughter.

3) These kids are dumb. "Neither the leadership nor the individuals had reason to know the University's Confiscation of Publications on Campus Policy," says Arnold's report. Maybe so, but I think sitting up nights planning to trash newspapers would qualify as a "reason to know" the University's thoughts on the subject. And if they thought that Penn was going to encourage such an activity, the investigation should be widened to include the Office of Admissions.

4) This is really Penn's fault. The JIO report states, "the existing mechanisms...through which the University sought to respond were not adequate [for] providing students the support and guidance they needed..."

4) I'm tired. "Ours is a community in need of healing, not of another protracted dispute," stated the report.

Lest one worry about the possibility of future acts of destruction, Interim President Claire Fagin and Interim Provost Marvin Lazerson stated, "We will respond vigorously to any future violations." In light of the "vigor" involved in the adjudication of this incident, I doubt that too many potential paperphobics are losing sleep over the threat.

Surprisingly enough, one of the first critics of the report was Penn's own Board of Trustees. In what Board Chair Alvin Shoemaker termed a "very unusual" move, the Board's Executive Committee issued a statement that "many of us are not comfortable that charges...were dropped."

Shoemaker also said that some Trustees wanted to criticize the University earlier in the year, but did not want to derail then-President Sheldon Hackney's nomination as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. They probably figured that Hackney, who became a national media punching bag over the Jacobowitz case, and whose analysis of the DP incident was that "two important University values, diversity and open expression, seem to be in conflict," was doing a fine job of derailing himself.

Free speech, as we all know, is anything but free. Universities must be resolved to punish those who stifle the rights of others. The messy, arduous task of sorting out who did what to whom and what penalties are to be meted out is not an enviable one. But the sweat of the administrators in control is just one of the tithes that have to be paid to prevent the foreclosure of the First Amendment by anyone with small, empty heads and large, empty sacks.

Free speech costs. And in Philiadelphia, the bills keep piling up.