Georgetown University placed 245 out of 248 schools in the 2024 College Free Speech Rankings by College Pulse and the controversial Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), an organization with the self-stated mission of protecting free speech and thought.
The list, which seeks to assess the openness of free speech on campuses that explicitly promise this freedom to their students, has ranked Georgetown in its bottom quartile since its first edition in 2020. Michigan Technological University, Auburn University and the University of New Hampshire took the top three places on the list for 2024. Only the University of South Carolina, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University are ranked lower than Georgetown. FIRE judged USC, the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown as having “very poor” free speech environments, while Harvard’s is classified as “abysmal.”
Many students, faculty and members of the administration who spoke with The Hoya said they disagreed with Georgetown’s low ranking, emphasizing that they felt the University strongly supports free speech.
A university spokesperson said that Georgetown’s Speech and Expression Policy supports members of the Georgetown community’s rights to free expression and openness in their academic pursuits.
“We respect the rights of members of our community to express their personal views and are committed to maintaining the values of academic freedom and serving as a forum for the free exchange of ideas, even when those ideas may be controversial and objectionable to some,” the spokesperson wrote to The Hoya.
The 2024 College Free Speech Rankings methodology features two components: a survey on students’ perceptions of free speech on their campuses and “campus indicators” of positive or negative free speech environments from FIRE’s database, such as supporting or sanctioning scholars who faced controversy over expressing their points of view.
The survey collected responses from over 55,000 students across 248 universities, including 135 anonymous respondents from Georgetown, using online advertisements, e-mail and outreach via various extracurricular organizations on campus. FIRE did not specify which organizations it reached out to.
The survey asked participants questions on metrics that factored into each college’s overall score: comfort expressing ideas, tolerance for liberal speakers, tolerance for conservative speakers, disruptive conduct, administrative support and openness.
John Griffin, who joined Georgetown’s government department as an American government professor this semester, said he was surprised that Georgetown did not rank higher.
“Georgetown students are quite open about their points of view,” Griffin told The Hoya. “They participate very freely in my classes. And we’ve talked about some controversial subjects, but it has never led to any students calling each other out or putting pressure or making negative comments about other students.”
Griffin said students who hold a political view in the minority compared to their peers may struggle to express their true beliefs due to a fear of nonconformity.
“There could be pressure for students here, as at other universities, to limit their expression but where the pressure originates from other students rather than from faculty or the administration,” Griffin said.
FIRE was founded by University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Charles Kors, a conservative, and liberties lawyer Harvey A. Silvergate, a liberal, in 1999, to advocate for students’ free speech on college campuses.
Critics of FIRE classify it as right-wing because of its funding from conservative donors, including the right-wing, libertarian Charles Koch Institute, which promotes conservative economic policies. In 2017, FIRE sponsored a student action summit held by Turning Point USA, a conservative student advocacy group whose former minority staff members have accused it of discrimination and racism.
Comfort Expressing Ideas
Georgetown ranked No. 86 out of 248 in comfort expressing ideas, the measure of how much students feel they have to censor themselves to conform or to avoid retribution from the administration, but ranked No. 208 on openness in conversations about controversial topics.
Maria Bizaki (CAS ’26) said she feels free to express her opinion on campus but said that feeling may vary for others based on their political views.
“I recognize that because I am coming from a liberal perspective, and since that’s definitely the norm on campus, it may be different for some of the conservative students on campus,” Bizaki told The Hoya.
“I do feel like I’ve interacted with people of different political views, including some of my friends, and I don’t think that’s ever posed a challenge in our relationship,” Bizaki added. “I never feel like they’re being pressured to say one thing or say the other thing.”
Sophia Sfiroudis (SFS ’26) said students may feel pressure to hide their true views if they differ from those their professors hold. In one class, she wanted to critique the international relations theory of liberalism, but felt as if she could not express or write about this stance since the professor stated that anyone who did not believe in the theory was incorrect.
“I personally felt uncomfortable expressing a political view that was contrary to that of the teacher for fear of being cast out in front of the class or made an example of in a negative way,” Sfiroudis told The Hoya. “Sometimes, I worried I would get a lower grade if I did, so I wrote and spoke in a way that did not reflect my beliefs or my identity.”
Sfiroudis added that her experience with that professor did not exemplify Georgetown’s level of free speech on campus, as she generally enjoyed a great deal of free speech in her other classes.
“But that specific experience doesn’t fit in line with what Georgetown professes about their Jesuit values about freedom of reflection,” Sfiroudis said.
Some professors make a concerted effort to encourage students to freely express themselves. Sarah Stiles, a sociology professor at Georgetown, implements an anonymous survey about students’ beliefs on a variety of controversial topics at the start of the semester in her “Law and Society” class.
Stiles said she uses the survey to facilitate open conversation in her class and gauge her students’ views on issues like abortion and political party affiliation.
“I show the results to everybody, and it shows them that not everybody thinks like you,” Stiles told The Hoya. “It sends the message that the people of the majority need to listen to others with different opinions.”
Questions About Tolerance
Georgetown scored seventh on overall tolerance for liberal and conservative speakers, indicating that its students are more likely than most other universities to be willing to hear speakers from both sides of the political spectrum.
Bizaki said she has noticed this trend on campus, with the university welcoming both former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to speak at different events the week of Oct. 2.
“The speakers’ wide variety of views reflect how there are so many different views on campus,” Bizaki said.
Sean Stevens, the director of polling and analytics at FIRE, said this high level of tolerance is common at elite universities like Georgetown.
“Students from these schools are still more tolerant of a liberal speaker compared to a conservative speaker, but compared to most of the other schools surveyed, they’re also more tolerant of conservatives,” Stevens told The Hoya.
“I think that’s reflective of this group of schools and the types of students that enter these schools,” Stevens said. “It embodies how they would like things to be — they want to be tolerant and say that people should be allowed on campus.”
Georgetown ranked no. 246 for disruptive conduct — the extent to which students think distracting behavior such as shouting down a speaker during an event is respectful — despite its students’ high level of tolerance.
FIRE’s rankings consider actions students take to disinvite a speaker with opposing views on campus and whether or not they are successful. Stevens said schools received a bonus for unanimously defending the speakers during a controversy but were penalized for sanctioning the speakers.
Stevens said even though students at schools including Georgetown profess tolerance for speakers from all sides of the political spectrum, there is a discrepancy between this ideal and their behavior when their universities or campus groups invite these speakers to events.
Most recently, Georgetown invited Dasha Navalnaya, the daughter of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to speak at the School of Foreign Service’s May 2023 commencement ceremony. A group of Georgetown SFS students, including several Ukrainian students, petitioned the administration to disinvite Navalnaya on account of her father’s contentious statements about Muslim immigrants, whom he called “cockroaches,” and Crimea’s status as a former Russian territory. Georgetown added two new speakers to balance out the event but ultimately declined to disinvite Navalnaya.
Stevens said Georgetown had the highest number of controversies, originating from both sides of the political spectrum, of the surveyed colleges, even though the university’s administration did not typically sanction the speaker. He added that this high amount could be due to Georgetown’s location and reputation, which could negatively impact a university’s ranking in comparison to a lesser-known institution.
“Something that happens at a Harvard or a Georgetown is much more likely to get attention than something that’s going to happen at a much smaller school,” Stevens said.
Griffin said that although students have the right to exercise free speech by protesting a speaker they disagree with or by asking them pointed questions, they infringe on the speaker’s free speech by disrupting them.
One of the most notable incidents in the database was at a 2019 immigration conference, when demonstrators on Georgetown’s campus loudly and persistently protested against acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan as he delivered a keynote address. After several repeated tries to continue speaking, a frustrated McAleenan left the stage.
Since McAleenan did not continue his talk, FIRE classified this event as a “substantial event disruption,” which severely counted against Georgetown’s score. The event caused the Georgetown University Law Center to reconsider imposing punishments for students who disrupt speakers in this manner, a policy that some students opposed.
Stevens said FIRE did not penalize Georgetown for students’ October 2022 walkout during Mike Pence’s talk on the future of the conservative movement since the event was not permanently disrupted, and Pence subsequently continued to speak.
Any community member’s actions that limit the free speech of others, such as those taken by the demonstrators at McAleenan’s talk, are in violation of Georgetown’s Speech and Expression policy.
“Actions that violate this policy include disrupting events to prohibit other students from hearing the views of an invited speaker, removing flyers or other materials from individual students’ residence hall doors, or otherwise limiting another’s ability to express a view or perspective,” the policy reads.
Stiles said she believes students cross the line between their free speech in protesting a speaker when they venture into disruption.
“I think a walkout is a fine example of symbolism and activism. And it’s a type of free speech too, but less is more,” Stiles said. “Sometimes to lose your cool by disrupting is counterproductive, and sometimes you’re just feeding into someone who’s trying to trigger you.”
Overall, Georgetown ranked no. 43 for administrative support, with the University of Chicago coming in first.
Griffin said Georgetown’s Speech and Expression policy has a strong commitment to protecting students’ free speech, especially given the university’s status as a private institution.
“The policy pretty much unequivocally says that any campus group can invite anybody that they want to come speak on the campus,” Griffin said. “It’s basically saying that the university is not going to step in and veto an invitation to a speaker, which is a pretty strong commitment.”
FIRE’s methodology did not take the variable of public versus private institutions into consideration, including a school’s status as a religious institution. At No. 65, DePaul University placed the highest of Catholic universities, followed by University of Notre Dame at No. 176. Fordham University placed just above Georgetown at No. 244.
According to Griffin, First Amendment protections are far more limited in private institutions than in public institutions because they are not run by the government and therefore do not have to strictly adhere to the First Amendment.
“That’s not to say that there aren’t protections on speech, but they just may not be rooted in constitutional protections,” Griffin said. “But even if it’s not required, most schools choose to try to create an environment of free expression since a strong commitment to creating an environment of free expression is at the core of the mission of educational institutions.”
Eleanor JB Daugherty, the vice president for student affairs, wrote in a Sept. 21 message to the Georgetown community that the university would protect students’ rights to free speech unless their behavior crossed the line into harassment or bullying.
“There are policies that we have and will always uphold,” Daugherty wrote in the message. “Georgetown is committed to free speech, whether in the classroom, in other spaces on campus and online even when that speech may be controversial or objectionable, but we do not tolerate harassment or bullying in violation of university policies.”
Stevens said that another variable that severely penalized colleges was if they sanctioned a professor, especially a tenured professor. In January 2022, Ilya Shapiro, the newly-hired lead of the GULC Center for the Constitution, tweeted that President Biden would not nominate the most qualified candidate to fill Justice Stephen Breyer’s empty U.S. Supreme Court seat but would instead name “a lesser Black woman.”
This remark, which many deemed racist and offensive, led to a subsequent suspension and investigation of Shapiro.
Shapiro, who previously worked on legal briefs to support FIRE’s cases, enlisted FIRE to take on his case. FIRE advised him on media strategy and wrote letters reminding Georgetown’s administration about his right to expression.
“Georgetown’s policy is sound,” Shapiro told The Hoya. “It says that someone disagreeing with or being offended by someone’s speech is not protected and it doesn’t constitute harassment.”
“If students or professors don’t feel free to speak about certain topics or give their opinions on a certain subject, whether in class or outside of class, it hampers the mission of any university to seek truth and develop knowledge to engage in discussions of ideas,” Shapiro added.
Griffin said it is a challenge for universities to successfully balance free speech with students’ well-being.
“Universities are trying to navigate and trying to figure out how they maintain their commitment to having an environment of free expression while also cultivating an environment where all students feel valued and respected,” Griffin said.
“Sometimes a speaker might be invited to campus who wants to say things that make students feel unequal or that they aren’t valued, and it’s important to make students feel like they have equal dignity and respect as well,” Griffin added.