Georgetown University was included in a list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education based on free speech cases the foundation has worked on during the previous year.
In a report released Wednesday, FIRE — a nonprofit focused on defending individual liberties at educational institutions — citied an incident last year at Georgetown University Law Center in which students were blocked from campaigning for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on campus.
During the September 2015 primary season, GULC’s Office of Student Life rejected students’ request to table for Sanders outside GULC’s McDonough Hall. The group instead used tables inside the McDonough cafeteria to campaign, but Oct. 13, 2015 — the day of the first Democratic debate — the group was asked to leave by university officials.
The university cited that because of its tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization under the 501(c)(3) category of the Internal Revenue Code, it could not engage in partisan political campaign activity.
FIRE Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon cited the status of the student group H*yas for Choice, which is not formally recognized by the university, as an additional reason behind Georgetown’s position on the list.
“Georgetown has made some efforts to improve its policies on speech and expression in recent years, but its execution has not always been great, as I’m sure H*yas for Choice can attest, considering they are still not a recognized student organization,” Beck-Coon wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The Law Center’s confusing and overly restrictive handling of student partisan political speech this election year is another example of that.”
FIRE wrote an open letter to Georgetown University Law Center Dean William Treanor on Feb. 1, 2016, on behalf of Alexander Atkins (LAW ’17) and other students who were tabling in support of Sanders.
Additionally, the group spoke on behalf of Atkins at a subcommittee hearing of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight, entitled “Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas on College Campuses,” on March 2, 2016.
Georgetown’s Office of Federal Relations wrote in a letter to the subcommittee hearing on “Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas on College Campuses” that it was changing its policies to better protect Georgetown Law students’ right to political expression.
The Office of Federation Relations wrote in a letter to the Chairman Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Ranking Member of the subcommittee John Lewis (D-Ga.) on Feb. 29, 2016, to further explain changes in its policies.
“We are adjusting the policies to make very clear that individuals as well as groups are able to reserve tables for organized activity and that all members of our community are able to make reasonable use of University resources to express their political opinions,” the letter reads.
Treanor stressed the importance of free speech at GULC in an email to The Hoya.
“We share Georgetown’s commitment to the fundamental right of members of our community to free expression, dialogue and academic inquiry and are aware of the concerns expressed by our students,” Treanor wrote. “We are currently exploring the best ways to respond to these issues.”
Despite these changes in university policy, some groups still say they encounter restrictions.
2017 marks the second year Georgetown has appeared on FIRE’s list. Georgetown was first listed in 2014 because of a free speech incident regarding H*yas for Choice in which the group was removed from tabling in Healy Circle and was relocated outside of Georgetown’s front gates.
Additionally, two condom envelopes were removed Sept. 23, 2016, from the doors of students who volunteered with H*yas for Choice on the fifth floor of Village C West.
According to a September email interview with Georgetown University Police Department Chief Jay Gruber, the envelopes were removed because GUPD had received a report of vandalism on the fifth floor of VCW and interpreted the envelopes as part of the vandalism.
Georgetown University Student Association and H*yas for Choice cited the incident as a violation of the free expression policy at Georgetown.
H*yas for Choice Co-President Brinna Ludwig (NHS ’17) said she believes there has been little policy change in recent years, and free speech restrictions are still a major problem for the organization.
“H*yas for Choice has encountered a number of issues related to free speech,” Ludwig wrote. “We are also restricted by the tabling zone policy, which limits where we are allowed to set up our table.”
Georgetown College Republicans President Allie Williams (SFS ’19) also highlighted the importance of expanding free speech areas on campus. Williams wrote in an email to The Hoya that because the student body tends to be more liberal, free speech issues occur particularly in regard to GUCR and the speakers the group invites to campus.
“As a college campus with a student body that inevitably leans left, Georgetown has had its fair share of free speech issues and, as a conservative organization that often invites controversial speakers, we have absolutely suffered from closed dialogue at GUCR,” Williams wrote. “The limited areas for free speech on campus is concerning and something that the University should definitely work on going forward.”
GUSA free speech policy team chair D.J. Angelini (MSB ’17) wrote in an email to The Hoya that students should see the ranking as motivation to continue to fight for free speech improvements across campus.
“I look at that rating not as an indication of what Georgetown’s doing wrong, but rather to show that we need to constantly regard speech and expression as one of the most important pieces of campus life today,” Angelini wrote. “I believe Georgetown’s administrators and students are committed to these ideals and I hope the rating energizes more students to get involved in promoting a culture of free speech on campus.”