Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Free Speech Not So Free After All

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Georgetown is hypocritical when it comes to free speech. Its policies are so bad that the university was recently given the lowest possible rating by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a respected non-profit that monitors speech restrictions on college campuses. But you wouldn’t know it by reading the first few lines of Georgetown’s Speech and Expression Policy, a massive 3,000-word document unlikely to be read in full by anyone but a masochist. It purports to “ensure the untrammeled expression of ideas.” But while the policy says that controversial speech is good, it actually bans it. It does allow a certain type of speech: the politically correct, vanilla kind. The kind that offends no one, the type that never needed protection to begin with. The most dangerous passage buried around 1,000 words into the document: “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.” That doesn’t sound so bad. It’s wrong to be racist, sexist or homophobic. The problem is that those 43 words appear to give the university unlimited power to ban things that the free speech policy is supposed to protect: Speech that you disagree with, speech that might be hurtful, spoken by the people you don’t like very much. Anyone should be able to tell you you’re wrong and to shut up. The government can, too. But it shouldn’t be able to sanction you for what you say. On a college campus, university officials are basically God. And this policy is the university’s version of a free speech Bible. So administrators can use its principles to restrict your speech in other ways. A code of conduct violation called “incivility with a university official” is defined as disrespecting a Georgetown employee – presumably with offensive speech. The offense can be punished by anything from discussion to disciplinary suspension. In 2004, the last period for which records are available, 46 students were cited for incivility. Administrators will not reveal those students’ names, punishments or a breakdown of how they allegedly disrespected university officials. That same year the university instituted a secretive bias reporting system and encouraged community members to report incidents to administrators. Only the most basic details of the complaints are public. You can’t see who filed them or summaries of what they were about. Does the university sometimes use the free speech policy to silence controversial speech? With Georgetown’s secretive rules, there’s just no way to know. Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson wrote in an e-mail that “the university often educates students through conversation and other informal means,” not by sanctioning them for offensive speech, unless they break rules in the Code of Conduct. Georgetown administrators like Olson do mean well. They say they wouldn’t abuse their far reaching power to regulate speech, although in effect they already do by banning student publications like THE HOYA and The Voice from running certain ads deemed to be anti-Catholic. And admittedly the university has often defended students’ rights to bring controversial people to campus. In years past it’s been speakers like Larry Flynt and Jerry Springer. Last year administrators allowed students to bring the Palestine Solidarity Movement’s national conference to campus. Some accused it of having ties to extremist groups but university officials defended students’ right to bring the PSM to the Hilltop. They did the right thing, and Georgetown administrators usually do. But they’ve also given themselves the power to do the wrong thing, to regulate the way people express themselves. “It is not about topics, it is about the way people address them,” says Law Center professor Peter Byrne who helped draw up the free speech policy in 1989. Byrne says university officials would never interpret the policy as one that bans speech just because it’s controversial. “The people that have been hired at Student Affairs are not in the business of regulating speech,” he says. But they already do, and that’s troubling. That’s why the free speech policy should be torn up. Moises Mendoza is a senior in the School of Foreign Service and former editor in chief of THE HOYA. He can be reached at mendozathehoya.com. DAYS ON THE HILLTOP appears every Tuesday.

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