Rigorous debate is widely accepted as a vital part of students’ formative college years, when their beliefs can be challenged by exposure to diverse perspectives.
Yet the attempts to suppress opposing viewpoints and hostile discourse around the recent GU272 referendum proves that Georgetown University students must do better to foster discourse that respects all viewpoints.
(Full Disclosure: Editorial Board Member Rowan Saydlowski is a plaintiff in the suit against the GU272 referendum. Editorial Board Member Maya Moretta is a member of the GU272 Advocacy Team.)
As a university community, Georgetown has affirmed a commitment to free speech, which is recognized in its extensive Speech and Expression Policy. “Discourse is central to the life of the university,” according to the policy. “To forbid or limit discourse contradicts everything the university stands for.”
In the weeks leading up to the referendum vote, many students embodied the commitment to discourse, with a variety of views represented in the town hall sponsored by the GU272 advocacy team, according to an April 5 article in The Hoya.
However, other students have not lived up to the ideals outlined by the policy. Allegations arose of both ad hominem attacks and suppression of speech, both of which are not conducive to genuine and civil debate.
Responding to a Feb. 16 viewpoint on The Hoya’s website, commenters, including a self-proclaimed student, referred to opponents of the referendum as racists. By attacking the character of the students rather than the arguments they’re making, students demonized and delegitimized opposing views simply by assuming racist intentions.
Attacking the character of opponents of the referendum fails to address plausible criticisms raised by opponents. To engage in meaningful discourse about sensitive topics like the referendum, students should focus on debating the validity of either side’s claims instead of attacking others’ character.
In addition to efforts to attack the character of referendum opponents, flyers opposing the referendum were allegedly torn down multiple times, according to complaints filed to the GUSA election commission.
Removing flyers based on their content constitutes censorship, an act that is antithetical to the university community’s commitment to encourage wide-ranging viewpoints. Destroying the property of opponents does nothing to further discourse.
Red Square, a space dedicated to supporting free speech, should not have its purpose violated by students. As a community, we must protect the integrity of public free speech zones so that students always have a space in which their voice is welcomed.
The value of Red Square is so significant that Georgetown has formally recognized it as a free speech zone in its Speech and Expression Policy.
An effective exchange of ideas can only happen when students engage with opposing views instead of tearing them down. The solution to disagreement is rational discussion, not erasing a perspective.
A rejection of good faith efforts at free discourse harms all students, not just those with unpopular opinions. By listening to those who do not share their views, students can better understand the nuances of their beliefs and strengthen their own argument.
Moving forward, students should model discourse on the civil debate that happened prior to the referendum vote and avoid attacking opponents in an unproductive way.
Students must work to uphold the values of free speech that are integral to our community and enshrined in Georgetown’s speech policy. To reaffirm our commitment to free speech, students need to choose civil discourse instead of unproductive attacks.
This article was updated April 28 to clarify the sponsor of the town hall on the GU272 referendum.