Assure Free Speech

The Georgetown University Lecture Fund announced this month that the President of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards will speak at Georgetown in April, instantly igniting much criticism and controversy. Planned Parenthood is a nonprofit that serves as the largest single provider of comprehensive reproductive health services in the United States, including contraception and abortion services. A number of Catholic organizations and individuals — most notably, the Cardinal Newman Society and the Archbishop of the Diocese of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl — have criticized the university for the invitation, calling it contradictory to Catholic teachings. The CNS called on the university to rescind the offer and ban Richards from speaking on campus.

We strongly support the university’s stance to allow Richards to speak. It is important to remember that a student-run organization — not the university itself — is sponsoring and hosting Richards’ talk here. The Lecture Fund has a mission devoted to inviting people from all backgrounds and with various political and religious views to campus in the spirit of free speech and open exchange of dialogue and is funded with the understanding that it will uphold this mission. Sometimes, that means inviting speakers who do not align with all Catholic teachings. The Lecture Fund — a nonpartisan organization — does not endorse Planned Parenthood. In fact, the organization is cosponsoring events with GU Right to Life, also known as Vita Saxa, the same week as Richards’ talk.

We recognize that the university is not an unbiased actor: This is a private, religious institution with a distinctly spiritual and moral mission. Georgetown University can and should take a clear position on all serious moral questions — including abortion. At the same time, a university is distinct from other religious institutions in that it promotes the open exchange of ideas and debate of issues as a fundamental part of its mission. The university directly hosts and funds Jewish, Hindu and Muslim chaplains, who — at least in part — hold beliefs contrary to the Catholic Church’s fundamental moral doctrines.

For some, however, abortion is different because it is not just a moral belief, but an act akin to murder from the Catholic perspective. Hosting Richards is different from hosting individual speakers who are pro-abortion rights because she specifically advocates for expanding abortion rights, and because she presides over an organization that provides hundreds of thousands of abortions each year.

We hold the position that allowing free speech is not the same as endorsing that speech and that hosting a speaker is not the same as validating that speaker. Whether the university does enough to promote its pro-life and anti-contraception position as a whole by hosting periodic events like the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life and banning Medstar Georgetown from performing abortions on campus, is an open, but separate, question.

Georgetown has every right as a private, religious institution to ban Richards from campus. But to do so would detract from its ability to truly educate and inform every student on pressing political question — reproductive rights included. The university has chosen to allow her to speak, and we should welcome with gratitude such a decision in favor of its fundamental mission.

 

Correction: An earlier version of the piece said that both the Cardinal Newman Society and the Archbishop of the Diocese of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl called for the invitation to be rescinded.  Although both organizations criticized the invitation, only the Cardinal Newman Society explicitly called for the invitation to be rescinded.

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