Georgetown University received a dubious distinction last Wednesday after landing on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech.

For a university that has, in the past two years, hosted speakers of every ilk and creed, from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and feminism skeptic Christina Hoff Sommers to Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, this categorization seems hyperbolic. Georgetown’s Speech and Expression Policy contains provisions that allow any student group to host an event or peacefully protest for demonstrators.

Regardless of if the university deserves the distinction of FIRE’s “worst of the worst” list for campus free speech policy, the report spotlights how the ambiguities in the Speech and Expression Policy are sometimes liable to misinterpretation and confusion by administrators and students alike.

According to the report, the ranking is largely predicated by an incident in September 2015, in which the Georgetown University Law Center’s Office of Student Life prevented a group of law students from campaigning for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign on campus. The university claimed that its tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization precluded the university’s engagement in partisan political activity, but later acknowledged in a February 2016 letter to a congressional subcommittee that the GULC had “applied an overly cautious interpretation of the legal requirements governing the use of university resources.”

Similarly, another incident cited by FIRE’s list also stemmed from a misunderstanding, after the Georgetown University Police Department removed condom envelopes from the doors of students volunteering for H*yas for Choice after reportedly mistaking them for vandalism.

These events in the past year do not represent insidious, systemic attempts by the university to muzzle free speech and expression on campus. Rather, the incidents cited by FIRE to justify its ranking all arise from the vague and obscure language of an otherwise permissive and accepting policy.

For instance, even after issuing a swift revision of its policy that clearly permits students to table for campaigns, GULC expressly prohibited the use of “university-sponsored resources, including Georgetown’s phone system, email lists, computer networks or servers, or postal service, for partisan political campaign activity.” But as FIRE points out, other university resources — including classrooms, bulletin boards and even campus Wi-Fi — are absent from the policy, leaving it to the university’s discretion as to how to enforce expression policy.

These ambiguities persist on the main campus, where confusion abounds among students and administration about the regulation of free speech. In 2014, GUPD removed students tabling for H*yas for Choice in Healy Circle outside a Right to Life event because H*yas for Choice strayed outside the confines of Red Square’s designated free speech zone, despite Vice President of Student Affairs Todd Olson reassuring the group in a Jan. 16, 2014 free speech forum that it was not confined to the area.

The conflicting reports from campus law enforcement, administration and students about free speech rights demonstrate that although the university remains committed to free expression and the exchange of ideas, the exact provisions of the policy remain subject to interpretation. This is easily remediable through the consolidation of a definitive Bill of Rights for student free speech, with specific language about space and resources that administrators can show to students who violate the terms, or, alternately, students can point to when disputing their right to expression.

Despite FIRE’s ranking, Georgetown will demonstrate its commitment to free speech this week by hosting two contentious speakers, Nonie Darwish and Asra Nomani, who proclaim inflammatory views about radical Islam. At the same time, Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative will host a conversation on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism with Rabbi Rachel Gartner and Imam Yahya Hendi. This campus climate is a far cry from FIRE’s ranking Georgetown as a repressive university for free speech. But in order to assure this continued commitment, the university needs to clearly delineate its expectations regarding free speech for both students and campus officials.

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6 Comments

  1. Pingback: EDITORIAL: Clarify Free Speech Policy – Georgetown University The Hoya | Prometheism.net

  2. Nothing new here. GU is corporatized, the endowment is the priority, De Gioia and his court reign supreme, and scholarship is down the toilet. GU was once a leadership in advocacy for free speech. Now its ‘free speech’ only if it doesn’t offend an endowment donor or donor who is going to build a building or finance a ‘chair’. The presidency needs to go back to a Jesuit; De Gioia had demonstrated what the priority has become at GU….the dollar.

    • Casey Nolan says:

      Hi sir, I think you may be mistaking Georgetown for somewhere is. The above incidents were mistakes on the part of GUPD officers, and the incidents were addressed immediately. I think that if you were a student at Georgetown, you would find that university administrators do not disinvite any speakers nor do they infuse their own ideology into their actions. As a current student at Georgetown, I have certainly found that. President DeGioia himself as well as the faculty senate, professors, and other administrators have all faithfully maintained the Speech and Expression policy, such as with allowing the above controversial speakers to come to campus, which I invite you to read here: https://studentaffairs.georgetown.edu/policies/student-organizations/speech-expression.

      • I see DeGioia has his interns hard at work defending him on Hoya articles

        • Casey Nolan says:

          Hi SFS 2016 (since I don’t know your real name),

          I am a normal Georgetown student who has met President DeGioia once. However, my student leadership positions have only garnered exceptionally positive interactions with President DeGioia. I was inspired to respond by what I saw as a wholly wrong and baseless comment. If you would like to talk to me rather than post anonymous and empty comments, feel free to email me at can40@georgetown.edu. Have a great day!

      • So Casey, are you saying FIRE was incorrect in their reporting? Are they being unfair to Georgetown in their ranking? I’m not clear how you define “Free Speech” if there are ‘free speech zones’ such as Red Square. When did Free Speech get modified to be allowed in a ‘zone?’ And surely you can see the irony of the Law Center being ‘overly cautious?’ They’re the Law Center for goodness sake! There was no mistake. If there was, maybe they should change the sign hanging over the door. As for a “definitive Bill of Rights for student free speech,” we’ve already got one…the Constitution and Bill of Rights. That is, unless the administration has, as I suspect, gone totally neoliberal and have decided to dole out rights as ‘they’ see fit. Administration and student government can determine to some extent behavior or conduct that is/is not acceptable on campus, but ‘free speech’ isn’t a conduct any administration has the authority to apportion. I think that is the concern.

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