At Georgetown University, a school that prides itself on justice and inclusivity, bigoted speakers should never receive backing from official university sources.
Georgetown has a clear duty, according to its Jesuit values, to uplift marginalized student voices and reject those who bring bigotry to campus. The Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, a student-run gathering that accompanies the annual March for Life, has a history of bringing intolerant speakers to campus. This troubling past should preclude Georgetown from offering its official endorsement to the event. Georgetown must follow through on its commitment to Jesuit values by revoking its support for the OCC and offer pro-abortion rights groups a chance to be heard.
Georgetown students, with the student organization Georgetown University Right to Life at the helm, first organized the conference in 2000 as an event for students in high school and college. The conference itself promotes the consistent life ethic, which includes opposition to abortion and the death penalty but also support for racial justice and expanded access to healthcare. Since its foundation, the conference has grown to become one of the United States’ largest conferences on the consistent life ethic and an important attraction for attendees of the annual March for Life. The OCC is a place for serious debate on abortion and a range of other human life themes, according to GU Right to Life President Kerry Ashkenaze (SFS ’21).
“We welcome differences in opinion and would encourage others to engage in dialogue with us,” Ashkenaze wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The Conference is always free to Georgetown students, faculty, and staff, and those of all beliefs are welcome and encouraged to attend and respectfully participate in our programming.”
However, many students do not feel welcome at the conference. The Hoya has reported on pro-abortion rights protests during the OCC going as far back as 2002, and student efforts to oppose the conference or its speakers have only grown larger since then. These protests are not without merit: Previous keynote speakers have included figures like legal scholar Helen Alvaré — known for opposing gay marriage in both the media and the courts — and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who authorized hush money payments to sexually abusive priests.
This year’s conference is no less heated. Gianna Jessen, the original 2021 keynote speaker who was removed from the conference’s lineup for unclear reasons, has implied Muslim immigrants are rapists. Further, the conference’s panel includes Alveda King, who has linked gay marriage to genocide.
Nevertheless, the conference lists various members of Georgetown’s leadership and institutions as official sponsors. Although Georgetown does not necessarily endorse the speakers who appear, per a university spokesperson, it continues to host the conference in accordance with the university’s free speech policy.
“Georgetown University is proud to be a university that deeply values our faith tradition and that encourages the free and open exchange of ideas,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “This conference is guided by our Speech and Expression Policy. Georgetown University’s long-standing Speech and Expression policy has guided our approach to speech while maintaining the fundamental right of members of our community to free expression, dialogue and academic inquiry.”
Georgetown’s policy on free speech may protect these speakers’ right to come to campus, but the policy does not require various institutions of the university to openly support the conference — and by extent, the speakers who appear — with their sponsorship year after year.
These speakers shame Georgetown’s Jesuit values. The university cannot “affirm and promote” a “Community in Diversity” when it supports prejudice on campus. Nor can Georgetown offer a “Faith that Does Justice” for the “marginalized and vulnerable” in our community when it attaches its name to such bigotry.
To uphold its Jesuit values and ensure students feel safe in the community, Georgetown must withdraw its sponsorship of the OCC. Furthermore, to offer genuinely free speech, Georgetown must take a neutral stance and avoid the appearance of supporting anti-abortion rights speakers. If these speakers wish to come to campus, they should do so without the university’s institutional backing. However, this necessary action is just one step in the right direction. Beyond revoking its support for the conference, Georgetown must also give pro-abortion rights organizations the chance to voice their concerns about the conference.
H*yas for Choice, a pro-abortion rights student organization that is unrecognized by the university, faces a high barrier to participation in the abortion rights debate. According to the Vice President of H*yas for Choice, Rachel Harris (COL ’21), this barrier has only worsened during the virtual environment.
“As an unrecognized group, we are not allowed to host or organize on campus spaces,” Harris wrote in an email to The Hoya. “This year’s virtual environment forced us to alter many of our organizing choices against the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life. Each year, we physically protest outside of the conference as attendees both enter and leave the conference; however, we knew that this year that would not be possible.”
HFC’s difficulty in organizing to make its voice heard during the conference presents a significant challenge to Georgetown’s ideals of diversity and free expression. To honor both its Jesuit values and its commitment to free speech on campus, Georgetown must allow pro-abortion rights activists a seat at the table. Therefore, by distancing itself from the OCC and giving voice to the conference’s opposition, the university can reaffirm its dedication to its core values and rebuild trust with the student body.
Georgetown must remove its official backing from the OCC and give opposition groups like HFC an equal chance to be heard. Without these changes, the university will continue to stain its core principles, to the detriment of student activism and expression.
The Hoya’s editorial board is composed of six students and is chaired by the opinion editor. Editorials reflect only the beliefs of a majority of the board and are not representative of The Hoya or any individual member of the board.
This article was updated on January 29, 2021 to reflect a wider range of the subjects presented at the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life.