We recently discussed students at Marquette University blocking the convocation for students at the start of the new school year. Now students have shut down the University of Pennsylvania’s freshmen convocation with President Liz Magill. The students were demanding that the school help in an eviction case near campus. According to Inside Higher Education, Daily Pennsylvanian, and College Fix, there is an eviction of a nearby affordable housing complex that led students and outside protesters to stop the convocation. Some 70 units are scheduled to be sold.Magill started to speak and was forced to sit down. After an effort to quiet the protest, she resumed only to be interrupted again.The protest over the sale of the units is an important free speech activity for the school. It is also something worth of debate at the school. However, as at Marquette, the protesters stopped other students and families from an important part of their college experience, a convocation that the protesters were allowed when they were incoming students. The protesters selected an event that would deny other students one of the most memorable moments of their education.There is a difference. It does not appear that the protesters stormed the stage. If this were a room or class where protesters disrupted the event, it would present a different issue. This appears a public and outdoor area. From accounts, it seems that the protest was allowed to come in close proximity with the stage and drowned out the speakers. That is why I do not believe that discipline is warranted in this case as opposed to those at Marquette. Penn could have taken steps to assure that the convocation was confined to incoming students and their families with space from any protesters.
Blocking others from speaking is not the exercise of free speech. It is the very antithesis of free speech. Nevertheless, faculty have supported such claims. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned).
I believe that preventing other students from experiencing this rite of passage was wrong and worthy of discipline. However, if these protesters were apparently allowed into a public open area, it is a more difficult question.
When students violate rules or occupy spaces or storm stages, I believe sanctions are appropriate in the form of an official reprimand or even a suspension. That should be accompanied with a warning that any similar disruption of a convocation or graduation in the future would result in expulsion. That does not mean that they cannot protest such events. The students have a free speech right to protest at the convocation. They do not have the right to storm the stage and disrupt the convocation. This protest harmed other students. The same is true for preventing classes from being held by storming a classroom, as was the situation previously discussed at Northwestern.
Unfortunately, these protesters were unwilling to allow these new students to have their convocation. It is an unfortunate sign of our times. We may find it difficult in the future to simply allow important open events like convocations on our campuses. However, our students should be able to experience convocations and graduations as important rites of passage.