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UPenn Legal Showdown: Free Speech or Antisemitic Hate Speech?

Will professors prevail claiming academic freedom or students demanding protection from antisemitic environment. 

The contentious battle about hate speech vs free speech and the need to  uphold  academic freedoms continues across all our universities with Penn yet again at the center of it following the antisemitic cartoon incident at Harvard which The Heart Monitors also covered. In the last two weeks, two lawsuits within two days, filed by both professors and a second one with an amendment filed by students, underscore that out of the Palestinian Israeli war rages on among other key controversies critical to Gen Z.  


Our work across the country focusing on Gen Z has made it  clear that the issues at stake are not confined to the ivy-covered walls of Penn, Harvard, or Columbia alone. Rather, they are emblematic of a larger national debate over the limits of free speech and the rise of hate speech in contemporary society and on college campuses. In the course of the last two weeks, we fielded questions about each suit among the general population and then among gen Z, segmenting out Gen Z Jews and Gen Z Muslims with regard to the student lawsuit.  


We found that Gen Z and Gen Pop does support both sides but with an overwhelmingly strong desire to see  real action to curb antisemitism on campuses.  


Penn Professors' Lawsuit: Defending Academic Freedom 

The first lawsuit, spearheaded by a group of university professors, attempts to prohibit Penn from complying  with Congress’ request for emails, syllabi, and other teaching materials citing the  primacy of academic freedom in the realm of higher education. The professors argue that their right to free speech is being stifled by Penn's administration, particularly in relation to their use of materials deemed controversial, such as what has been labeled as antisemitic content in coursework. According to recent polls conducted among both the general population and Gen Z, support for the professors' lawsuit is evident. 


Among the general population, 63% agreed that the professors were justified in their suit against Penn, highlighting a recognition of the importance of academic autonomy and freedom of expression. Emotional responses to the issue varied, ranging from curiosity and confusion to shock, anger, and even happiness, underscoring the polarizing nature of the debate. 


I am shocked that the university doesn’t care about antisemitism.”  White Female, Christian  67 


“Any sign of antisemitism is just plain wrong and should be removed immediately,” White Female No religion 51 


“They should be held to a higher standard since they are teachers, “ 41 White  Male 


“Free speech is free speech and shouldn't be infringed upon. “  39, Hispanic Male  


“The university is violating their rights by trying to force them to say only what the university wants”. Black Woman, 43  


Interestingly, Gen Z's response seemed to mirror that of the general population in many ways. They also largely supported the professors' lawsuit against Penn (65%), despite experiencing less shock compared to the general population. However, Gen Zers feelings reflected more polarization: stronger feeling of happiness at professors taking a stand, confusion which reflected a desire for more details on the situation, and sadness reflecting situations today on college campuses. Their comments belied a strong curiosity as well as a refusal by  to weigh in without more direct knowledge with strong voices at the extreme of the debates.  


I feel good about it. I think people should stand up for Palestinian students; and Palestinians. Being pro-Palestine is not anti-Semitic.” 26, white Jewish male  


My respect for them has fallen. Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences; their employers are obligated to allow investigations”. Christian white male, 26 


Lessons are suppose to be factual; not political. Professors should abide by rules of university; and expect their lessons to be audited regularly anyway”. Black female 24 


“I don’t think they should Sue but they do have the right to free speech“. White female, 23 


It’s very reasonable” White female, Jewish 22 


“University professors are role models and should be aware of that when in a school setting.”  White female Buddhist, Asian 22 


“ I’m indifferent but am curious on their take about the freedom of speech. Hate speech however is not protected as far as I understand though”  White male, Christian 21 


Students' Lawsuit: Combating Antisemitism and Hate Speech 


So, what do we then make of the overwhelmingly strong  support  of the Jewish students' separate lawsuit citing concerns over the prevalence of antisemitism on campus and the university's alleged failure to address it effectively and highlighting  the severity of the issue everywhere?   

Both the general population and Gen Z overwhelmingly supported the Jewish students' suit against Penn, with 77% and 69% agreement, respectively. This reflects a widespread recognition of the seriousness of antisemitism on college campuses and a desire to see concrete action taken to combat it. 


Among the general population, gen z overall and then gen Z jews and Gen z muslims, there were more similar feelings than  


Furthermore, the call to dismiss faculty, students, and employees engaging in hate speech and rhetoric garnered strong support from both demographics. Among the general population, 79% agreed with this demand, while 75% of Gen Z concurred. Notably, even among Gen Z Muslims, 50% supported the dismissal of offenders, indicating a broad consensus against hate speech regardless of religious affiliation. 


Our take:  


Penn is certainly back in the hotseat again:  Standing up for the professors could  draw accusations of antisemitism and not responding to the reality of antisemitism on its campus will not be tolerated by students or alumni,  


The question remains how far U Penn will go to put a stake in the ground on how hate speech or even teaching that does fuel antisemitic behavior. All eyes should be on Penn right now.  Under new leadership, will Penn take a different stance? Will Penn take a stand and will other universiti 

In the meantime, students and faculty alike grappled with the implications of these lawsuits for their own college experiences. For some, it was a sobering reminder of the power dynamics at play within academia and the need for greater accountability from university administrations. For others, it was a call to action to stand up against bigotry and intolerance wherever it reared its ugly head. 


Penn as a leading university brand and the hotbed of debate  has the opportunity to set an example for all schools—a beacon of inclusivity, tolerance, and respect.  

About The Heart Monitors

The Heart Monitors is a new type of strategy and insights consultancy focused on the idea that feelings are the new currency that drive sharing, identification and adhesion to messages. There are twenty emotions and over two thousand feelings. The Heart Monitors looks behind the headlines, pop culture, and controversies to unearth the feelings behind the facts™ to shift hearts and minds for causes and brands through our proprietary tech driven research stack.

Contact us to discuss your all of strategy and marketing research needs: upfront insights work, message testing, creative executions, brand and nonprofit strategy engagements, white space and innovation work, and building custom research panels.


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