It has been 24 years since the university wrote the Speech and Expression policy that has repeatedly been flagged by watchdog groups and students. Now, GUSA leaders are pushing to make good on a campaign promise to change that.
The university’s policy defines the boundaries of Georgetown’s unrestricted speech zone to Red Square and the Leavey Center lobby, and guarantees recognized groups access to public space on campus to meet and discuss issues.
Georgetown University Student Association President NateTisa (SFS ’14) and Vice President Adam Ramadan (SFS’14) made expansion of free speech zones a centerpiece of their February campaign platform.
“There is an inconsistency between having a theoretical campus-wide free speech zone and having a more pragmatic free speech zone of Red Square,” Tisa told The Hoya last week.
The Speech and Expression Committee, which is composed of four undergraduate students appointed by GUSA and four faculty members, met last year only when students or faculty members brought forth complaints of potential policy violations. The committee convened twice in the 2012-2013 academic year. It will have its first meeting of the year on Tuesday.
“Our biggest task would be free speech zones where, instead of having one zone on campus where students can have complete free speech … have campus itself be a free speech zone where certain places are protected,” GUSA Deputy Chief of Staff Tane Arana-Humphries (SFS ’15), a student representative on the Speech and Expression Committee, said. “There are certain places given, like the cemetery or President DeGioia’s office, where you should be respectful. But for the rest of the campus, we’re educated adults and should be able to express our opinions.”
This year, in an attempt to change its role on campus, the committee will meet more regularly to review the Speech and Expression Policy instead of convening only to review violations. The committee has the authority to amend the university’s speech policy, along with approval from the vice president for student affairs.
“We’re shifting it from a reactive body to a proactive, meaning it’s not going to react to problems of free speech, but it’s going to go out there and advance it to the community,” Tisa said.
The committee will also work with student groups to gauge their take on free speech.
“Through some of the other work we’re doing, we’re also looking at student organizations and how free speech affects them in terms of student organization standards and access to benefits,” Arana-Humphries said.
According to Arana-Humphries, some sections of the Speech and Expression Policy are vague and open to multiple interpretations.
“A lot of the wording is ambiguous. We need more concrete language on what exactly students can or cannot do, where those boundaries lie,” she said. “We don’t want to have a situation where a certain group has a certain opinion and the administration might have the right to stifle that.”
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has ranked Georgetown as a “red light” institution for the past seven years for having policies that restrict freedom of speech, but the direct impetus behind the inclusion of free speech on Tisa and Ramadan’s platform was last spring’s Student Activities Fair inO’Donovan Hall, where groups not formally recognized by the university were not allowed to participate.
Without a free speech zone nearby, the unrecognized groups that usually occupy the periphery of the fair in Red Square were not able to table. Instead, the groups, which include unrecognized Greek-life organizations and H*yas for Choice, could only pass out flyers and hold banners.
H*yas for Choice President Laura Narefsky (COL ’14) agreed that there was a lack of tolerance for free speech at Georgetown. According to Narefsky, H*yas for Choice student representatives have reported at least four incidents when envelopes containing contraception pamphlets and condoms were torn from their dormitory doors, which are also a designated free speech zone.
“The general atmosphere is sometimes particularly hostile,” she said. “There is a problem of understanding and accepting that students who have other views exist in our living space.”
Sigma Phi Epsilon member Christian Berger (COL ’16) described his fraternity’s experience at the Student Activities Fair.
“We were pretty upset about it, but at this point, there’s nothing we can do about it because of the university’s stance,” Berger said. “We know where we stand in terms of the university and where they put us, but at the same time, we’re just going to do the best we can to market ourselves to the Georgetown community.”
Tisa stressed that the goal of revamping the Speech and Expression Policy goes beyond expanding freedom of speech for student groups not recognized by the university.
“I don’t want to keep this as an issue for those particular groups, because this really isn’t,” he said. “We don’t have a culture at Georgetown for free speech, and that takes a long time to fix,because it’s also about student culture and the way we interact with each other.”
However, Narefsky said that amending the policy to make it more accommodating to groups not recognized by the university is the first step before changing the free speech culture.
“The current policy puts us under a microscope. We’re constantly watching for ourselves in a way that the vast majority of the student groups don’t need to do so. And that, to a certain extent, does stifle discussion of ideas,” she said
Narefsky said she was glad that the GUSA executives are pushing for the change.
“There was a lot of talk last year. We haven’t seen any implementation of the platform that was discussed. We really hope the GUSA executives will move forward with their promises, and we also want to be involved on the ground floor,” she said. “All voices and opinions at the university should be heard equally.”
Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Jeanne Lord, chair of the Speech and Expression Committee, did not respond to request for comment.