On Sept. 21, College Pulse, RealClearEducation and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education published the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, a comprehensive comparison of student assessment of free speech on college campuses. The takeaway? Georgetown University’s free speech rating is horrendous.
As a premier school for the studies of domestic and international politics, Georgetown embarrassingly falls below the 18th percentile of the 159 American colleges, coming in at No. 131. A deeper analysis of the data reveals troubling insights on the state of free speech at Georgetown. According to the report, of the 250 Georgetown undergraduate respondents, only 24% say it is never acceptable to “shoutdown” a speaker on campus, and just 73% of students say it is never acceptable to use violent protest to stop a speech on campus. Despite these sentiments, it is critical speakers not be shut down, as exposure to different beliefs broadens student perspectives. We must address the disrespect for free speech on campus and engage speakers and students with critical questions about their beliefs.
In October 2019, the Georgetown University Law Center invited Kevin McAleenan, the then-acting U.S. secretary of homeland security, to give a keynote address. As he attempted to speak, protesters shouted him off the stage because of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. These hecklers included law students and, to make matters worse, professors. Similarly, in September 2019, the loud disruptions of student protesters at an event featuring a conservative perspective to climate change required Geoffrey Bible, the director of protocols and events, and the Georgetown University Police Department to step in and restart the event.
Students on both sides of the political aisle feel their speech is repressed. The unofficial status of H*yas for Choice, a student-run pro-abortion rights organization, and the cancellation of its past workshops are a great frustration for many. Because of Georgetown’s status a Catholic and Jesuit university, pro-abortion rights students believe their perspectives are censored because of their content. Restrictions on speech have become commonplace on our campus. Our student body should take action to protect freedom of speech and welcome ideological diversity while respecting rights to protest. Indeed, protests indicate a healthy free speech culture on campus. Yet the most effective forms of protest reveal themselves in the form of pointed questions that challenge views and ideas presented. Shutting down a speaker or ending an event sets a precedent that makes other crucial perspectives and voices less likely to be heard.
The warnings in the free speech rankings are troubling in themselves, but especially so today. Following almost three semesters of virtual learning, only one class of undergraduate students has experienced a full academic year on the Hilltop. As a result, many of Georgetown’s cherished values and traditions remain unfamiliar to the majority of our student body. Now more than ever, we are in a critical time to rediscover, reinvigorate and become active participants in the spirit of Georgetown. This process includes recognizing our Jesuit value of community in diversity, which calls on us to engage with those unlike ourselves and embrace our differences — a principle central to free speech on our campus. We have not only the burden of rekindling Georgetown post-pandemic but also the honor of reshaping it into something we are proud of.
Low confidence in the campus’s capacity to uphold the right of free speech is antithetical to the vibrant political activism culture that students have worked so hard to construct at Georgetown. As a training ground for future public servants and political actors, our student body must create a movement in order for students of all ideological backgrounds to feel comfortable expressing their ideas. We should expect our ideas to be challenged by others in the classroom. We should attend speaker events that contradict our long-held political views with an open mind. We should protest events we strongly disagree with while respecting others’ right to speak. We should see students regularly engaging in critical and substantive conversation in Red Square with excitement for the truth we can discern when we put our diversity of backgrounds and opinions together. Let us break a different Georgetown bubble — that of our own persistent values and views — and escape the perpetual echo chamber we find ourselves in, so we can become more engaged and balanced members of campus and society. Together, we can create a greater Georgetown.
Matteo Caulfield is a junior in the College.