Drexel to return to normal operations with less free speech | The Triangle

Drexel to return to normal operations with less free speech

Photo by Anjalee Sharma | The Triangle

On Oct. 8, a day after the Hamas attack, President John Fry sent an email to the Drexel University community stating, “we continue to defend academic freedom, encourage free intellectual inquiry and robust debate, and maximize exposure to diverse ideas and perspectives.” Since then, President Fry’s tone has changed. When pro-Palestinian protesters formed an encampment, he sent university-wide emails every day claiming that the demonstration was disruptive and not peaceful. Ironically, the Drexel community was encouraged to report incidents to the Office of Institutional Equity and Inclusion while singling out unaffiliated individuals for additional criticism.

President Fry’s claims are either exaggerated or false. After observing the encampment every day, including when the encampment formed, I could tell that the protesters were passionate but peaceful. They were definitely loud, but not one laid a finger on a police officer or showed any intention of taking over a building. However, there was an incident in which a Philadelphia Police officer began forcefully shoving people while yelling “MOVE! MOVE!” There was no prior instruction by the police for the people to move out of that area.

President Fry also claimed that Drexel Police Chief Mel Singleton’s offer to the protesters to meet with members of the administration was refused. When asked for comment about this, the encampment’s media liaison said, “This is a bold-faced lie. We were given a specific time to meet with Chief Singleton and asked if that time was good for us. That time was not good for us and we asked to reschedule, and we have not had communication since, so saying that we have refused outright is a lie.” After more than two weeks, Drexel has not responded to a request for comment. While this claim could not be independently verified by the Triangle, if true, it represents a concerning pattern of institutional speech that chills further speech on campus.

On any issue where there are multiple sides to the debate, no matter what position the institution takes, some group is going to become alienated, and there is a risk of potentially suppressing speech. After all, if powerful, authoritative people like the president and dean come out with a certain statement, students may not feel as safe expressing their sincerely-held beliefs either in the classroom or in the college green, especially if the institutional speech is backed up with threats of disciplinary proceedings. The mission of any institution is to promote debate and the exchange of ideas in pursuit of learning more about the world, not to issue edicts. In this instance, President Fry went out of his way to condemn the encampment which unfairly influenced the university’s opinion of the protesters. This is especially true when students are told the encampment is dangerous and encouraged to avoid the encampment, forcing them to rely on President’s Fry’s strongly opinionated emails for news on the encampment’s doings.

There is also the question of selective enforcement of rules based on speech. It seems unlikely that Drexel would have had any response at all if people, students or not, sat in the Korman Quadrangle for any other purpose than protesting.

To be clear, this is not a defense of the Drexel Palestine Coalition which organized the encampment. I vehemently defend the right to free expression at universities, not the content of the speech of every person exercising this right. In the previous issue before the encampment began, I argued that divestment would be ineffective, and I believe that some of the demands of the Drexel Palestine Coalition, such as firing a Jewish professor, are violations of hard-fought civil rights at best and hateful at worst.

In fact, the First Amendment even protects hateful speech (but not hateful conduct) as the ACLU so valiantly argued. Although the First Amendment does not apply in the same way to private universities in the same way it does to the government, it was enacted for many of the same reasons free speech should be protected at universities: it is a dangerous slippery slope for a governing authority to determine what is a good idea and what is too dangerous of an idea to utter. Authorities can certainly restrict the time and place of protests for viewpoint-neutral safety reasons, but Drexel fails to show why a protest at night is more dangerous than the daytime or why a tent is more dangerous than a sign. The First Amendment would also prevent the government from having a prior restraint on speech based on assumptions of what will happen.

Drexel’s overreaction with a lockdown during the six days of the encampment also caused way more problems than it solved. Going on lockdown when there was no imminent threat of a building takeover accomplished nothing while significantly disrupting everyone’s lives. The current system of having a single point of entry with student ID slows down movement enough to give Drexel Public Safety enough capacity to immediately shut down any building takeover. There is also simply no need for protesters to protest in a building if they have an outlet for their views outdoors on the grass. It is also worth pointing out that other instances of students taking over buildings, such as when Columbia students raided a dormitory, they did not go through the front doors, which are the only entry points affected in a lockdown.

During the lockdown period, students living in the University’s residence halls were unable to sign in guests. As a result, residential students had to cancel long-planned overnight visits from friends and family, which is extremely inconvenient at best and starves overworked students of social interaction at worst.

Some guests, however, were not fortunate enough to have the privilege of canceling. Isabelle Beach, an incoming sophomore biology major at the University of Texas at Dallas, was visiting her long-time friend at Drexel when her flight home got canceled. She had to stay an extra night in her friend’s room in Bentley Hall. Unfortunately, that was the night that Drexel decided to disallow guests, and she had to find housing at the last minute while already stressed about being stranded halfway across the country.

When asked for comment, Beach said, “The lockdown skewed my plans to stay over in my friend’s dorm — 300 extra dollars were spent on a hotel room even though I had stayed in her dorm room the night before; the guest policy felt a bit strict. I felt like if I were on a list of previously registered guests, then it should be okay.”

The burdens imposed on guests of Drexel students during the lockdown are unacceptable. Drexel should compensate them for their pain and suffering and reevaluate its protocols to ensure that any threat that leads to lockdown outweighs the real risk of causing people to be unhoused.

The legality of this action is questionable at best. Under the Pennsylvania Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951 §504-A, tenants have the right to invite social guests, family and visitors to their dwelling unit. This right may not be waived.

To be clear, the protesters did not force Drexel to respond in this way. Even if the security situation warranted a law enforcement presence in the Korman Quadrangle where the protest was happening, President Fry himself said on the second full day of the encampment that the demonstrations had remained peaceful. It would be unfair to pin the blame of the lockdown on protesters.

Drexel’s response to the encampment calls into question how welcome protests are at this institution. The crushing response to this protest and negative institutional speech that came with it strongly discourage future protests. As an opinion writer who depends on strong protections for the free exchange of ideas to continue providing important coverage of campus events, I am deeply concerned for the future of Drexel University.