Today, on the first-ever Georgetown Traditions Day, it seems fitting to recall a less-than-glorious Georgetown tradition that seems to get played out year after year, not least on the pages of this venerable newspaper: that of Georgetown students needing to defend their right to free speech from the attacks of their fellow students. It amazes me that we still need to have this discussion in the 21st century in the United States of America, but here we are. It seems that the misguided notions of a vocal few never die.

Anyone who reads the campus press can tell you the basic facts that gave rise to the latest incident of speech-suppression on the Hilltop. Over the weekend of Nov. 2-3, The Georgetown Academy’s press run was stolen from its distribution points. Several days later, the stolen issues reappeared in the Office of Student Affairs. The campus media groups have subsequently declared their unambiguous and categorical commitment to free speech at Georgetown. While it is unfortunate that some students still see it necessary to stop speech that they deem to be offensive by tearing down posters or stealing newspapers, I was heartened by the response of virtually every element of the Georgetown community. Suppressing speech, even if some do deem it offensive, is an unacceptable means of combating unpopular ideas.

Standing against the wind of prevailing sentiment, an alumnus of both Georgetown College and the Law Center wrote a column on this page last week in which he advocated taking stronger steps to stop the dissemination of hateful speech on the Main Campus (“GU ust Protect Students, Not Offensive Speech,” Nov. 15, 2002, The Hoya, p.3). Terrence Boyle’s concern for the well-being of students at this Catholic institution is laudable, but his proposed methods should frighten all thinking people who call this place alma mater. Although he offers no concrete proposals to better protect students from hateful speech, the drift of his intentions is clear. By invoking the Catholic creed and branding speech that he deems offensive to be beyond the pale of what a Catholic institution should permit, Mr. Boyle seems to sanction the notion that some official organ of the university should grant an imprimatur to each and every issue of a publication that gets distributed on this campus.

Such a view is both wrong and hurtful. It is, in and of itself, insulting to the intelligence of the Georgetown student body. First, there is the blatant assault on the constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and press that all persons within reach of American law enjoy. Restraint on the publication of information has not existed in this country since 1725. The last major viewpoint-related persecutions of individuals were during the cCarthy era, when the House Un-American Activities Committee conducted its witch hunt for suspected Communists. Today, we Hoyas cleave strongly to the view that, however harmful speech may be, it is morally and intellectually wrong to censor it because of its content. Whatever harmful consequences follow from publication of information should be dealt with through legal proceedings for libel and slander and through the appropriate university disciplinary bodies.

Second, and perhaps more important, any defense of the notion that the university should stop “hateful” speech fundamentally misconstrues the teaching of the Catholic church as authoritatively promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. Various documents issued by that body impose the burden of moderating speech squarely upon the author and the publisher of a document. If the document is flawed, it is the Catholic – and the Christian – duty not to judge the publication and seize it. Rather, the Christian has a duty to pray for the author, using the power of love to correct the writer and make her see the error of what she has written.

Georgetown’s current speech policy and this administration’s response to the recent theft of the Georgetown Academy are fully consistent with the Catholic understanding of how to correct false ideas. I speak only of legitimate speech, such as that which was censored by anonymous students who stole thousands of copies of The Academy in 1998 and The Voice in 1999, not illegal speech that violates federal copyright and trademark law such as the fake Hoya incident of 2001. Though I bear little love for The Academy, I pray for those who work for that publication and hope that they will no longer see it necessary to make their points through offensive speech. I invite r. Boyle and others to join me in a great Georgetown tradition by doing the same.

Alex Henlin is a 2001 graduate of the College and is a second-year student at the Law Center. The Dissenting Opinion appears every other Tuesday.

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