A campus-wide free speech forum held by the Georgetown University Student Association and the university administration on Thursday night attracted students passionate about the issue. The forum’s purpose was to promote discussion and debate of Georgetown’s policy on free speech and its practice on campus.
The forum, titled “Free Speech in the Digital Age: Are There Boundaries?” featured Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., history professor Marcia Chatelain, former Chair of The Hoya Board of Directors Lauren Weber (COL ’13) andGUSA President Nate Tisa (SFS ’14). The panel was moderated by Vice President for Public Affairs and Senior Advisor to the President Erik Smulson in LohrfinkAuditorium.
Reform of free speech at Georgetown was a central component of Tisa’s campaign for the GUSAexecutive spot last year, and in October, he highlighted speech reform as a goal of the second half of his term. This forum, however, represents the first public push toward bringing free speech into wider campus conversation.
“We wanted to provide an opportunity for students to voice their concerns directly to administrators and we wanted to do it in a way that would promote change afterward, as opposed to just voicing concerns and letting it fizzle,” Tisa said.
Panelists were chosen based on their knowledge of and experience with the free speech policy, which says “expression that is indecent or is grossly obscene or grossly offensive on matters such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation is inappropriate in a university community and the University will act as it deems appropriate to educate students violating this principle.”
“I don’t think it’s up to me, or in some cases, the university, to determine what’s offensive. For me, my quibble with the speech policy is essentially that it’s hard to tell what’s offensive and what’s not,” Weber said during the panel.
During a question-and-answer session, H*yas for Choice Vice President Abigail Grace (SFS ’16) questioned the benefits of the free speech policy for clubs that are unrecognized by the university, such as H*yas for Choice.
“The free speech and expression policy is something that is very central to our ability to exist on campus. Unfortunately for us, we haven’t been able to operate in the way the free speech and expression policy outlines, specifically in regards to free speech zones,” Grace said. “You can sit here and say how we’re all a community and how we all want to have discourse, but if that’s not actually implemented on the ground, then the words on the page are useless.”
In response to Grace’s question and similar inquiries about the free speech policy in practice, administrators referenced a document they plan to release that will clarify the university’s free speech policy.
“By the end of the semester, we will produce a document that tries to really clarify and smooth out a lot of these issues. It will not solve all of them, but it is the best step forward to try to get clearer and more explicit,” Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson said. “Before the last day of classes this semester, we will produce at least a version of that.”
The forum comes at a time when student representatives on the Speech and Expression Committee are seeking to update the university’s 24-year-old Speech and Expression policy.
“When you look at the policy, it says that all campus is supposed to be a free speech zone, but the kind of way the policy is implemented, it hasn’t always lived up to that expectation,” Tisa said. “We’re hoping to leave the forum with an idea of where we need to go next, not only for us, but for the administrators who are in there.”