William Leo is a Hoya Staff Writer
Conversation on campus is constant. Walking through Red Square, students can overhear hundreds of their peers gathered in spirited conversation. Although few recognize it in the moment, there is a subtext to every action and interaction, a fundamental principle enabling almost everything we do at Georgetown — the right to free speech and expression.
This safeguard enables Georgetown students to convene and express their opinions on Georgetown property, even when those opinions conflict with the university’s official views. It enables students to set up tables and speak about their causes, to put up fliers and to protest policies of the university and federal government.
Red Square is one of Georgetown’s public forums, a designated space for free expression and speech. It acts as both a symbol and reminder of the right to free expression that belongs to Georgetown students.
But expression is not without its pitfalls, even at Georgetown. On Tuesday, a swastika was found inside an elevator in Village C West. The next day, two swastikas were found painted in an elevator in LXR Hall. As the country continues to grapple with the aftermath of the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Va., last month, the issue of the extent of freedom of expression remains divisive.
Protest: Then and Now
In quads and lecture rooms throughout America, angry students and frustrated administrators clash with renewed intensity and regularity. Both progressive and conservative speakers have been dissuaded from speaking on campuses because of threats of protest or violence. But that is nothing new, even here on the Hilltop.
In May 1971, Washington, D.C., bore witness to a series of May Day protests against the Vietnam War that resulted in violent conflicts between protesters and the Metropolitan Police Department. Seeking asylum, protesters turned to Georgetown, arriving at the front gates on the morning of May 3. Rev. Robert J. Henle, S.J., president of the university at the time, sanctioned the police department’s use of tear gas to dispel the protestors, but many students were caught in the crossfire and were injured as a result.
Although the protesters had largely been removed by the end of that day, the events of May Day remained with Georgetown students long after. In October of that year, student body President Roger Cochetti (SFS ’72) and Vice President Nancy Kent (CAS ’72) resolved to safeguard students’ rights, creating Students of Georgetown, Inc., now better known as The Corp — a legal entity separate from the university with the power to challenge the administration’s actions.
Fifteen years later, the issue of campus protest resurfaced, when 29 protestors were arrested in April 1986 for refusing to vacate White-Gravenor Hall, which they had been occupying in protest of Georgetown’s investments in companies with interests in pro-apartheid South Africa. More than half of these anti-apartheid protesters were Georgetown students. Students also erected a shanty in front of the building, but were warned in a statement from current University President John DeGioia, dean of student affairs at the time, that the university could not provide them “sufficient protection” for protesting in or around the shanty.
The Georgetown community continues to experience disputes over free speech today, as tensions surrounding social and political issues have become even more pronounced. Last May, one of Students for Justice in Palestine’s posters in the Intercultural Center Galleria was vandalized, leading to uproar between student groups on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Student groups tabling has also created a thorny problem. In September, 2014, members of H*yas for Choice were temporarily removed from a tabling location on 37th Street by a Georgetown University Police Department officer. The group was tabling in protest of the university bestowing an honorary degree to Donald Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop of Washington. H*yas for Choice expressed disagreement with Wuerl’s positions on women’s health care and LGBTQ rights. The group was later allowed to return to its tabling location, although the incident sparked campuswide conversation regarding the extent of free expression on campus.
Groups on both sides of the abortion rights debate have experienced issues with free speech.
“I wish there was more respect,” said Havens Clark (COL ’20), president of Georgetown Right to Life. “We have had stickers ripped off laptops and posters torn down.”
Invited speakers have also incited on-campus debate. In April, Sebastian Gorka, then-deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, left a Georgetown panel 20 minutes before it was scheduled to end after a group of students gathered in protest against him. A year prior, the Lecture Fund invited Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, to speak. Both supporters and protesters demonstrated outside of campus. Anti-abortion rights groups and Catholic groups were especially groups were especially vocal in their denunciation of a Catholic university hosting a speaker who, in their view, was not conforming to their religious values and traditions.
Because a university-funded organization had invited Richards to campus, statements about Catholic values had the potential to conflict directly with the rights of students to organize discourse and express themselves.
Changing Stances on Free Speech
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties organization that publishes an annual list of the worst universities for free speech, Georgetown ranks among the 10 most egregious offenders in the country. Georgetown first received this ranking in 2012 and has consistently been ranked among the worst schools for free speech.
“Georgetown repeatedly had incidents with H*yas for Choice,” Marieke Beck-Coon, FIRE’s director of litigation said in an interview with The Hoya. Beck-Coon also said the ranking was mainly based on Georgetown University Law Center’s handling of partisan political speech. In the last election cycle, GULC forbade supporters of former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders from demonstrating. GULC claimed that its tax-exempt status meant that students were not allowed to distribute campaign materials.
Out of nearly a thousand schools in the United States, the language in Georgetown’s Speech and Expression Policy also places it firmly at the bottom of the list. Since 1989, this policy, promulgated through the Division for Student Affairs, has dictated the limits of speech and expression by Georgetown faculty members, students and other members of the university community.
The university also reserves the right to regulate the “time, place and manner” of speech. Demonstrations and publicity on campus generally require university approval.
However, the Speech and Expression Policy also conserves several public spaces where speech is unrestricted, except in the case of hate speech and harassment, including Red Square and Sellinger Lounge.
Given the integral role of speech on a college campus and the sensitivities associated with it, speech violations are treated differently from other disciplinary violations. Georgetown’s Committee on Speech and Expression handles complaints and issues which arise in free speech on campus. The committee is made up of both administrators and students, but according to Ben Costanza (COL ’18), Georgetown University Student Association free speech chair, “The final say is with the university.”
Even if the policies of the university protect some groups, their implementation can become a barrier to speech for unrecognized organizations, like H*yas for Choice.
“While in previous years H*yas for Choice has had certain incidents and disagreements with the University and/or its actors, namely GUPD, these events were based in erroneous understandings and interpretations of our rights under the Free Speech and Expression Policy, not in an issue with the Policy itself,” co-president of H*yas for Choice Michaela Lewis (COL ’18) wrote in an e-mail to The Hoya.
Simple ignorance of regulations surrounding speech can chill discourse. As Costanza put simply: “Transparency could be improved.”
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Speech and Expression Policy as well as student involvement in the speech adjudication process, dampens the severity of the student code of conduct.
“Georgetown is an open place for discourse,” said Costanza. “You only hear about it when something bad happens.”
With hundreds of university organizations and a thriving civil society of involved students, the free speech situation at Georgetown may give the appearance of vitality. In spite of the appearance of good health, however, free expression at Georgetown does have its problems.
As Beck-Coon said, “universities quarantine expression with free speech zones,” placing limits on the most fundamental rights in academia.
In the eyes of FIRE and other civil liberties organizations, the regulations already in place are draconian. According to Beck-Coon, free speech zones like Red Square “cordon off free speech and limit student organizations in reaching their audience.” She believes that universities across the nation should “shore up their commitment to free speech by changing speech codes.” The exclusion of marginalized voices like H*yas for Choice and the hesitance of the university to invite polarizing figures also limit free speech on campus.
Time to Speak
That being said, the free speech situation on campus is changing. With the adoption of the University of Chicago Free Speech Statement, a document supporting free speech on college campuses, by the university this summer, Georgetown has positioned itself as more friendly to free speech after disputes with GULC last year. FIRE has commended the university’s new stance on free speech. w
As we continue to grapple with issues pertaining to free speech, it is important to remember that, at its core, free expression at Georgetown relies on student interest and involvement. So long as members of Georgetown’s community continue to demonstrate a passion for expression and contribute to spirited discourse, freedom of speech will remain an integral part of campus dialogue. “College is about discourse. The best thing to do is exercise free speech,” Beck-Coon said. “If you love free speech, use your words.”