Water buffalo incident
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The water buffalo incident was a controversy at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, in which student Eden Jacobowitz was charged with violating the university's racial harassment policy.
The incident occurred when Eden Jacobowitz shouted, "Shut up, you water buffalo", out of his window to a crowd of mostly black Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters creating a ruckus outside his dorm. Others had shouted at the crowd, including several who shouted racial epithets, but Jacobowitz was the only one charged.
Initially Jacobowitz had an advisor assigned to him, who urged him to accept the University's offer of a settlement. The settlement required him to admit to violating the racial harassment policy. Instead, he contested the university's decision under the advice of Penn history professor and libertarian activist Alan Charles Kors.
Jacobowitz explained his choice of "water buffalo" as from Hebrew slang, "Behema", used by Jews to refer to a loud, rowdy person. He procured several expert witnesses who attested to this and others, such as Michael Meyers, who gave testimonies that "water buffalo" was not a racial epithet against African Americans.
Jacobowitz's story was brought to the fore by the media focus on Penn. On April 23, several days before his hearing, the New York-based Jewish Daily Forward broke his story with the headline "Pennsylvania Preparing to Buffalo a Yeshiva Boy". The story gained even wider media coverage after the Wall Street Journal picked up the story with an editorial entitled "Buffaloed at Penn" on April 26. Jacobowitz was interviewed on television several times.
Based on testimony that Jacobowitz had called the women "water buffalo" and the university's belief that this was a racial epithet, they proceeded with prosecuting him. On May 13, 1993, news anchor John Chancellor had the following commentary:
Eden Jacobowitz is a student at the University of Pennsylvania. His studies were interrupted by a noisy crowd of students, many black and female. He yelled out his window, "Shut up, you water buffalo." He is now charged with racial harassment under the university's Code of Conduct. The school offered to dismiss the charge if he would apologize, attend a racial sensitivity seminar, agree to dormitory probation, and accept a temporary mark on his record which would brand him as guilty. He was told the term "water buffalo" could be interpreted as racist because a water buffalo is a dark primitive animal that lives in Africa. That is questionable semantics, dubious zoology, and incorrect geography. Water buffalo live in Asia, not in Africa. This from the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Jacobowitz is fighting back. The rest of us, however, are still in trouble. The language police are at work on the campuses of our better schools. The word cops are marching under the banner of political correctness. The culture of victimization is hunting for quarry. American English is in danger of losing its muscle and energy. That's what these bozos are doing to us.
Despite the public outcry and widespread media coverage, the University refused to discuss or explain its actions. The hearing was delayed for another two months while international press commented and criticized Penn's decisions. Garry Trudeau devoted a Sunday's Doonesbury to the water buffalo incident.
Despite repeated requests by Jacobowitz's legal teams to have charges dropped, the University pressed forward. At the hearing the panel decided not to dismiss the charges and issued a gag order to keep proceedings from leaking to the press. The University's actions during the hearing would later come under some fire when it was revealed that they charged him with using racial epithets despite knowing that he had been absolved by a university police investigation.
After intense scrutiny by reporters, the University denied issuing a gag order, and University President Sheldon Hackney offered Kors a deal in which Jacobowitz would apologize for rudeness and the University and the plaintiffs would drop the charges. The affair ended when at a press conference the 15 women agreed to drop charges, claiming that the media coverage made it unlikely they would get a fair hearing. The University stated there were no charges pending.
According to The Shadow University by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, when asked on NBC whether he had ever heard of "water buffalo" being used as a racist slur, Larry Moneta, a vice-provost of the University at the time, replied, "The issue is not whether I have or not. The issue is also, you know, language in my mind is neutral. It's a question of the context in which is language is used." Later on, Kors and Silverglate report that Moneta grudgingly said that at the University, "All speech is free." In 2007, Moneta faced scrutiny while being sued by students at Duke University for First Amendment rights violations during the infamous 2006 Duke University lacrosse case.
A second student, Jacobowitz's roommate, was also charged by the university and placed on probation for his part in the original midnight ruckus. The second student had agreed to probation in order to avoid a hearing, which he felt would require an attorney his family could not afford. After the university dropped charges against Jacobowitz, the second student's faculty counselor sought to have the penalty of probation reversed, but Robin Read, the university's judicial officer overseeing the case, refused, even though the second student had not been the one to yell "water buffalo." He had merely been one of several students to yell at the women for disturbing study and sleep late at night.
- African-American – Jewish relations
- Controversies about the word "niggardly"
- Political correctness
- University of Pennsylvania controversies
- "Chapter 1: The Water Buffalo Affair". Shadowuniv.com. Retrieved 2010-06-16.
- "The Shadow University". Partners.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2010-06-16.
- Trudeau, Garry. Doonesbury Comic Strip, July 11 1993. GoComics.com. Retrieved 6 March 2010.
- Decourcy, Michael (1993-05-25). "Blacks at Penn Drop a Charge Of Harassment - NYTimes.com". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-06-16.
- "The Shadow University - Chapter One: The Water Buffalo Affair - Page 12". Shadowuniv.com. Retrieved 2010-06-16.
- The water buffalo incident through eyes of Jacobowitz Daily Pennsylvanian, 4/15/2003
- GUEST COLUMNIST: Kors: Penn, Hackney mishandled 'water buffalo' case Daily Pennsylvanian, 12/7/1998
- Sheldon Hackney's Spring From Hell Pennsylvania Gazette May/June 2003
- Book excerpt from The Shadow University