Last month’s chaos in Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia a mere few hours away, captured headlines long after the protests ended and the streets cleared. The rally and its aftermath brought to the national forefront a number of issues that we must continue to grapple with, including our country’s struggle to reconcile with our history of racism, particularly through our continued memorialization of the Confederacy.
The events in Charlottesville revived a debate that remains perennial in our national conversations, particularly on college campuses such as ours: the blurry interactions between free speech and hate speech. As we have seen in the past several years, the issue of free speech is one that Georgetown must constantly grapple with as it seeks to preserve intellectual freedom while also fostering an inclusive and respectful culture.
The debate which emerged in the wake of Charlottesville reminds us that our government must continue to protect free speech for even the most repugnant corners of our society. Though the sight of Nazi and Confederate flags flying in our streets undoubtedly deserves our scorn, hate speech is still free speech, regardless of how unsavory it is.
The right to free speech — even by the most reprehensible of groups, such as the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville last month — must be defended. To curtail it would, in fact, be counterproductive. Allowing the government to pick and choose what speech is acceptable at its own discretion sets a dangerous precedent and fails to account for the changing nature of our executive branch.
While we hope an administration will crack down on one particular group — in this case, neo-Nazis — its successor might set its sights on an entirely different target. Further, those who beseech our government to restrict the speech of neo-Nazis should recognize that President Donald Trump has failed even to forcefully condemn this group, as when he said that there were “some very fine people” in the crowds of white nationalists. It is reasonable to believe that their speech is not what his government would choose to limit, if given the power.
The exception to this, of course, appears when speech is intended to incite physical violence; those who seek to promote physical harm forfeit their ability to speak unconstrained. This was the case in Charlottesville: When the rallies deteriorated into violence, the participants vacated their rights to free speech.
The debate of when it is appropriate to curtail free speech becomes even more difficult when it moves onto college campuses, as is all too familiar to the Georgetown community. Just last semester, this editorial board called on the university to clarify its free speech policy in order to codify students’ continued ability to express themselves freely. This conversation was rekindled on campus in reaction to the news that Georgetown had been ranked as one of the 10 worst colleges for free speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Universities should seek to function as marketplaces of ideas, in which free exchange facilitates the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Bad ideas — even those that personally offend us — help this market operate more efficiently by encouraging the refinement of good ideas. However, universities, as smaller communities with more concrete principles of conduct and shared values, also have a broader prerogative to constrain free speech than governments.
It is worth noting that the focus of these restrictions should be on invited guest speakers. Students’ right to free speech should always be enshrined and protected. There are, however, practical reasons why universities must often reject outside speakers, particularly those who might provoke campus outcry.
The most common reason is perhaps the lack of adequate security resources to ensure the safety of all students and event attendees. For example, in the weeks after the Charlottesville riots, universities across the country — including Pennsylvania State University and the University of Florida — denied requests by prominent white nationalist leader Richard Spencer to speak at their campuses, citing the significant security risks his presence would impose.
As a community committed to free speech, we must allow speakers whose past comments or affiliations may be reprehensible, but who come to campus to share their body of knowledge on a particular topic and thus contribute to our marketplace of ideas — something hate speech fails to do.
For example, we condone last year’s invitation to Sebastian Gorka, a former White House national security aide whose presence on campus was widely criticized due to his alleged ties to Hungarian neo-Nazi group Vitézi Rend. Though Gorka’s affiliations are reproachable, he was invited to speak on a topic of his expertise, cybersecurity. The same goes for Asra Nomani, whose invitation to campus came under fire last year amid accusations of her Islamophobia. Nomani’s views on Islamic extremism, though perhaps unpopular, contributed to the on-campus dialogue, particularly because students had the opportunity to challenge her views and statements during the question-and-answer period that followed her event.
Furthermore, though speech that runs counter to the university’s values should not be privileged, it should be allowed. For instance, the decision to allow Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards speak on campus in 2016 was the correct one. Even when the platforms of speakers conflict with our Catholic and Jesuit values, the university must allow this exchange of ideas. Nevertheless, the administration must voice its disagreement with speech that contradicts our core principles. In this way, the university reaffirms both its commitment to its identity and to the preservation of free speech.
Additionally, invited speakers — in particular, those whose values run counter to the values of our community or are offensive to groups on campus — must allow themselves to be challenged by their audiences; only through question and answer and rigorous debate of the issues do we truly facilitate an open exchange of ideas.
Universities must always have the right to restrict speech that is directly threatening to sectors of the student population. However, this calls into question what speech qualifies as threatening. This editorial board believes that so-called threatening speech espouses an ideology that casts certain people as inferior to others, and is expressly intended to denigrate a certain group by race, religion, gender or any other demographic feature; this should clearly be restricted from our campus.
Protecting free speech while prohibiting hate speech is one of the most complex issues that our campus faces as we seek to stand up for both the free exchange of ideas and the inherent respect that each person deserves. However, we must realize that this conversation cannot only occur when conflicts arise. Georgetown has grappled with a wide range of speakers in the past and will undoubtedly do so in the coming year. To be a community that prides itself on both its open discourse and its inclusive culture, we must remain committed to preserving free speech even when we find it most offensive.