In 1989, when Georgetown University first implemented its policy for free speech and expression, Rev. James Walsh, S.J., its creator, explained that at the very core of a university is the “untrammelled expression of ideas and information.”
This dedication to a constructive exchange of ideas was not reflected in last week’s chalking incident in Red Square. Last Tuesday, anti-abortion student group Georgetown University Right to Life chalked messages in Red Square,such as “End abortion” to celebrate National Pro-Life Chalk Day. By Wednesday morning, the messages were scrubbed away and replaced with different messages, including “End hate,” “Choose women” and “End the racist sexist capitalist cishetro patriarchy.”
This incident clearly represents a violation of the university’s speech and expression policy, which forbids actions that “curtail the free speech of others.” It is also the antithesis of actual constructive dialogue on an issue as salient as abortion, and thus it should serve as a reminder to the community about the importance of productive and meaningful discourse.
While the nature of the incident involved the alteration of water-soluble chalk, the action is still unacceptable given that it interfered with the perspectives and expressions of individuals. It would have been more sensible for those who disagree with the chalk messages to chalk their own messages next to those written by GU Right to Life. To secretly and anonymously change its messages, however, is both a sign of disrespect and an affront to Georgetown’s commitment to the open exchange of ideas.
Red Square is one of the public places on campus for individuals to conduct constructive dialogue and, according to university policy, its existence is “available for the purpose of exchanging ideas.” Every day in Red Square, students table for their organizations, post flyers to promote events and protest to raise awareness for causes. Chalking is another form of expression for students to write messages that will remain visible to the thousands of passersby who traverse Red Square every day.
However, because Red Square is a space for open expression, students should not tear down flyers promoting causes they do not agree with, prevent people from protesting or deface provocative chalk messages. Red Square’s status in our community as a meeting point for dialogue should be upheld, and students must respect the open discourse that occurs there.
Fortunately, the conversations sparked in light of the chalk incident have been largely optimistic. After GU Right to Life’s chalk messages were found defaced, pro-abortion rights group H*yas for Choice released a statement indicating that although its members disagree with the views expressed by GU Right to Life, they “ultimately know the free speech rights of students on campus allow them to share their opinions in public spaces.” Such an acknowledgment is crucial for constructive and fruitful expression to continue in the future.
In addition, GU Right to Life President Amelia Irvine (COL ’19) said she reached out to HFC in order to understand “how we can do better to love one another and treat each other with respect.” The mutual respect between groups with opposing views needs to be maintained in order for members of the community to learn from one another.
Nearly every day, students will encounter an opinion with which they disagree and find fault. However, they only stand to gain by respecting all forms of expression and discourse that are within the bounds of Georgetown’s policies. This way, the community can begin to emulate the core ideals promoted by Walsh nearly 30 years ago.