Georgetown University received a dubious distinction last Wednesday after landing on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech.
For a university that has, in the past two years, hosted speakers of every ilk and creed, from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and feminism skeptic Christina Hoff Sommers to Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, this categorization seems hyperbolic. Georgetown’s Speech and Expression Policy contains provisions that allow any student group to host an event or peacefully protest for demonstrators.
Regardless of if the university deserves the distinction of FIRE’s “worst of the worst” list for campus free speech policy, the report spotlights how the ambiguities in the Speech and Expression Policy are sometimes liable to misinterpretation and confusion by administrators and students alike.
According to the report, the ranking is largely predicated by an incident in September 2015, in which the Georgetown University Law Center’s Office of Student Life prevented a group of law students from campaigning for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign on campus. The university claimed that its tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization precluded the university’s engagement in partisan political activity, but later acknowledged in a February 2016 letter to a congressional subcommittee that the GULC had “applied an overly cautious interpretation of the legal requirements governing the use of university resources.”
Similarly, another incident cited by FIRE’s list also stemmed from a misunderstanding, after the Georgetown University Police Department removed condom envelopes from the doors of students volunteering for H*yas for Choice after reportedly mistaking them for vandalism.
These events in the past year do not represent insidious, systemic attempts by the university to muzzle free speech and expression on campus. Rather, the incidents cited by FIRE to justify its ranking all arise from the vague and obscure language of an otherwise permissive and accepting policy.
For instance, even after issuing a swift revision of its policy that clearly permits students to table for campaigns, GULC expressly prohibited the use of “university-sponsored resources, including Georgetown’s phone system, email lists, computer networks or servers, or postal service, for partisan political campaign activity.” But as FIRE points out, other university resources — including classrooms, bulletin boards and even campus Wi-Fi — are absent from the policy, leaving it to the university’s discretion as to how to enforce expression policy.
These ambiguities persist on the main campus, where confusion abounds among students and administration about the regulation of free speech. In 2014, GUPD removed students tabling for H*yas for Choice in Healy Circle outside a Right to Life event because H*yas for Choice strayed outside the confines of Red Square’s designated free speech zone, despite Vice President of Student Affairs Todd Olson reassuring the group in a Jan. 16, 2014 free speech forum that it was not confined to the area.
The conflicting reports from campus law enforcement, administration and students about free speech rights demonstrate that although the university remains committed to free expression and the exchange of ideas, the exact provisions of the policy remain subject to interpretation. This is easily remediable through the consolidation of a definitive Bill of Rights for student free speech, with specific language about space and resources that administrators can show to students who violate the terms, or, alternately, students can point to when disputing their right to expression.
Despite FIRE’s ranking, Georgetown will demonstrate its commitment to free speech this week by hosting two contentious speakers, Nonie Darwish and Asra Nomani, who proclaim inflammatory views about radical Islam. At the same time, Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative will host a conversation on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism with Rabbi Rachel Gartner and Imam Yahya Hendi. This campus climate is a far cry from FIRE’s ranking Georgetown as a repressive university for free speech. But in order to assure this continued commitment, the university needs to clearly delineate its expectations regarding free speech for both students and campus officials.