Half a dozen protesters representing RefuseFascism.org, an organization dedicated to disputing the legitimacy of November election, were escorted off campus by the Georgetown University Police Department on Jan. 11 after disrupting classes in the Intercultural Center and Reiss Building to denounce President-elect Donald J. Trump.
The protesters, who were not Georgetown students, chanted and distributed flyers in Red Square and the ICC Galleria to promote an anti-Trump demonstration to be held Jan. 14 in McPherson Square. In addition to barging into classrooms, members of the group also singled out passing students, including decrying a self-identified Republican student as “equivalent to Satan.” After their removal from campus Jan. 11, the RefuseFacism.org group returned to protest in Red Square as recently as Jan. 17.
While protesters outside of the university community have a right to contribute to diversifying campus dialogue and fostering the university as a center for self-expansion, their free speech protections should neither come at the expense of classroom learning nor extend so far as the outright harassment of students. To prevent this, the university must enact measures to ensure a productive and safe platform for expression.
The university’s current Speech and Expression Policy stipulates that certain areas of campus are designated for the express purpose of exchanging ideas: Red Square, the lobby of Leavey Center and parts of the Healey Family Student Center foyer. Only protesters from the university community are permitted to access university buildings, though they are not permitted to disrupt classes.
But the fact that these protesters were able to gain access to classrooms to voice their beliefs demonstrates a crucial shortcoming of the policy: security. With the close proximity to classrooms to designated free speech zones, it is fortunate the RefuseFacism.org protesters were armed with nothing more than a sign, pamphlets and strong opinions.
The fact that these protesters were young and virtually indistinguishable from possible Georgetown students further complicates the issue of security, as the Department of Public Safety cannot easily identify them as demonstrators from an external organization.
This could be remedied by amending the university’s Speech and Expression Policy to more closely resemble the District of Columbia’s citywide protest permit process, which grants permits on a first-come, first-serve basis and often provides a police escort to a group to diffuse tensions to ensure compliance.
Implementing such a policy and mandating a police escort would facilitate greater security when external groups protest on campus, as the Department of Public Safety could monitor groups and ensure they abide by other provisions of the Speech and Expression Policy. In addition to ensuring compliance with free speech zones, assigning a Georgetown University Police Department escort to these groups can deter both students and protesters from devolving into harassment or violence.
While external groups could still breach this policy and attempt to demonstrate on campus without prior approval from GUPD, demanding a permit would provide a streamlined process for distinguishing between approved protesters and violators of the policy.
Demonstrators from beyond the university gates provide an indelible facet of the university’s discourse, but not if their contributions descend into harassment and trespassing, as RefuseFacism.org demonstrated this past week. By modeling current university policy after Washington’s municipal regulations requiring permits for protests, Georgetown could champion student safety while preserving a climate of free expression.