Getting hot and bothered over perceived affronts to the First Amendment is a rite of passage for college students, maybe because we’re desperate for our liberties and maybe because it’s the easiest amendment to understand and remember.

That’s why I haven’t been surprised over the last few weeks as campus reaction to proposed changes in the university’s speech and expression policy has been swift and unforgiving, rather like the dropping blade of a guillotine.

The campus newspapers have united in detestation of the proposed policy, which would allow the vice president for Student Affairs to confiscate certain publications. That might make for a good headline – “VP Could Seize Publications” – and it would be true enough, but it’s not the whole story.

Better: “Gonzalez Could Seize Certain Publications.”

Better: “Gonzalez Could Seize Certain Anonymous Publications.”

Better: “Gonzalez Could Seize Certain Anonymous Publications That He Deems Offensive.”

Better: “Gonzalez Could Seize Certain Anonymous Publications That He Deems Grossly Offensive.”

Better: “Gonzalez Could Seize Certain Anonymous Publications That He Deems Grossly Offensive and That Target Identifiable Individuals.”

Better: “Gonzalez Could Seize Certain Anonymous Publications That He Deems Grossly Offensive and That Target Identifiable Individuals and That Could Already Be Seized Under Existing Policy.”

And we’re still not really anywhere – but that’s the sort of cursory understanding of the policy that seems to be informing campus debate. That debate would be more productive if everyone would take two minutes to actually read the policy and another two minutes to try to understand it.

As a member of the committee that drafted the proposal, I find myself correcting more misunderstanding than responding to valid criticism – though I have certainly heard some valid criticism. But in this proposal, I think, the good outweighs the bad.

The proposal clarifies the university’s response to a certain type of materials that are already not accepted on this campus. Grossly offensive materials are not protected under current policy, and university officials can deal with them accordingly – this proposal only pertains to a certain type of grossly offensive materials.

It only pertains to materials that target identifiable members of the community by exposing them to undue personal ridicule – not arguments about the merits of their actions or the quality of their ideas, but cheap, personal attacks.

Finally, it only pertains to anonymous publications – a category of materials that demand protection in a free society or free community, but a category of materials that can be used by cowards to launch “hit and run” attacks on a community. The proposal makes clear the obvious merits of anonymity, and does nothing to challenge a person’s right to produce an anonymous publication, as long as that publication does not contain grossly offensive material and personal attacks.

This proposal demonstrates the delicate balance the university strives to maintain between protecting the community and protecting all speech, no matter how harmful. In all cases, the error should fall toward protecting speech, but in the case of materials discussed in the proposal, the issue is clear cut: It is discussing speech that contains no merit, no argument, only the potential to cause very personal harm.

The fundamental argument this proposal makes is that anyone who puts on a mask and launches offensive, personal attacks on members of the community forfeits the right to be considered a member of the community. As an academic community, Georgetown values speech that offers the opportunity for dialogue, and speakers who forward their ideas and participate in the debate surrounding them. The types of publications covered in the proposal have nothing to do with ideas at all.

The fact is, there are some people on this campus who find joy in making cheap and feeble personal attacks, and they (read: The Academy) have already promised to reprint any legal though tasteless articles confiscated under the proposed policy (excepting pornography). The rest of us, I think, are bigger than that.

Georgetown must have its own set of standards that differ from federal and local legal standards. As an academic institution, its mission is quite different than society at large – we came here with the idea that our time at Georgetown would help shape our ways of thinking and our values as we prepare to enter society at large.

It’s easy and expected for newspapers to launch vague defenses of the First Amendment, but in this case, they would do well to consider that they are being protected. If cowards can hijack the likeness of a newspaper and use it to launch attacks on members of the community, those cowards are not only harming the community, but harming the reputations of the newspapers themselves.

The proposal also calls for these publications to be put to “educational use,” and this is more than cheap talk. The idea is not that university officials strip students of the right to see these materials, but rather encourages them to be seen in an organized forum. Perhaps faculty members could moderate responsible discussion about the publications or anything contained therein. If authors won’t allow for responsible discussion about their statements, then the university should make it its business to do so.

By All Accounts appears every Tuesday in The Hoya. The author can be reached at haggertythehoya.com.

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