Georgetown’s Speech and Discussion Policy guides us in our approach to on-campus dialogue:”A university is many things; but central to its being is discourse, discussion, debate: the untrammeled expression of ideas and information. This discourse is carried on communally: We all speak and we all listen.”
But we did not all listen yesterday when Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, arrived in Gaston Hall to speak to the university community. In fact, we could not listen because a small group of protesters decided to shout over the general, paralyzing his speech in the process.
What should have been an event characterized by an intelligent exchange of ideas quickly devolved into a shouting match, with Petraeus acting as little more than a spectator.
Part of what makes Georgetown unique is its ability to attract high-profile speakers like Petraeus and thereby allow the student body to engage in discussion with such notable figures. Students do not have to agree with every speaker, but they ought to grant each guest of the university the respect of a listening ear.
Some might argue that yesterday’s display was nothing more than students exercising their right to free speech. Free speech, however, can and should be fairly limited by considerations of time, place and manner. Shouting down another individual who has been invited to speak by the university is unacceptable.
Petraeus stated up front that he expected to be challenged both in his views and his role in American military policy abroad. The time for this challenge, however, was the Q-and-A session that was to follow the general’s address. Any individuals who felt that they could not restrain themselves until then ought to have left the event. By stalling Petraeus’ speech – and compromising the event for the rest of those present – they cost the entire university a valuable opportunity to engage in a discussion about war, peace, diplomacy and American military involvement abroad.
Protest is an important form of free speech, and the students who spoke out yesterday certainly have a right to their opinions. The mechanism they used in their protest was a disservice to the general’s equal right to free speech, however.
Furthermore, respect was necessary in this instance not just for Petraeus’ right to speak, but for his role as a member of the U.S. military. Petraeus is not only the chief arbiter of U.S. military strategy, he is also a soldier. Students – and all Americans – ought to support and commend the efforts of U.S. soldiers abroad – even if they disagree with the war as a whole.
The Speech and Discussion Policy states that “making it impossible for others to speak or be heard or seen, or in any way obstructing the free exchange of ideas” can carry consequences. Yesterday’s outburst was an embarrassment to this university – as well as to the students who were respectfully attentive to the general – and the protesters ought to be held accountable for their actions.