Talk of Free Speech, Race Divides U. Penn

After `Water Buffalo,' Debate Persists

University of Pennsylvania's interim president this week delayed her decision on whether to suspend part of the school's racial harassment code, which forbids the use of derogatory language.

Claire Fagin, the interim president, is reevaluating Part II of the code, which forbids any "verbal or symbolic behavior" that "insults or demeans [a] person on the basis of his or her race, color, ethnicity, or national origin by the use of slurs, epithets, hate words, demeaning jokes, or derogatory stereotypes."

Campus-wide debate has focused on Part II since last January, when Penn sophomore Eden Jacobowitz was charged with racial harassment for calling black sorority members "water buffalo." Jacobowitz said he made the remarks late at night from a dormitory window because the sorority members were making too much noise.

The ensuing debate--which received attention in the national media, from The New York Times to Rush Limbaugh--has focused on the dilemma of fostering civility on campus without infringing on free speech. The sorority members dropped their complaint against Jacobowitz earlier this year.

At Penn, one student group, the Human Rights League, is circulating a petition and letter that urges Penn not to suspend Part II of its code. The group plans to show the petition and letters to Fagin next week.


According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, the daily newspaper on campus, the Human Rights League letter argues that the policy "does not inhibit the free exchange of scholarly ideas throughout the university, since it merely restricts certain behavior intended only to inflict direct injury."

Rashad Ibrahim, a senior who founded the Human Rights League, did not return phone calls yesterday.

But Penn junior Naim Peress, one of the hundreds of students who signed the petition this week, said yesterday he only supports Part II of the code if there is a guarantee that it will be "judiciously enforced."

"The code is worth having," Peress said, "but one must remember that it all depends on how you enforce it. If enforced as in the water buffalo case, it's a total travesty."

On September 26, Penn's Undergraduate Assembly passed a resolution asking Fagin not to suspend the harassment code until Penn "develop[s] and enact[s] alternative and comprehensive plans to deal with the lack of respect on our campus."

According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, Faginsaid a pending Equal Employment OpportunityCommission (EEOC) proposal on harassment in theworkplace--which would mandate a similar speechcode for employees--did not affect her decision todelay suspension of Part II.

The EEOC will not take action on the proposedguidelines until November 30. Penn, as an equalopportunity employer, must abide by EEOC rules.

Peress said Penn would create a double standardif it followed the EEOC guidelines but repealedthe university's harassment code. "It would besilly for employees but not students to beprotected against verbal harassment," he said.

Several Penn officials, including Fagin andProvost Marvin Lazerson, did not return telephonecalls yesterday