Forum Stresses Open Discussion

By Tom Johnson Hoya Staff Writer

Free speech is a necessary part of life at Georgetown University, even if some individuals don’t always respect it, agreed students, faculty and administrators in a forum held Tuesday about free speech on campus. The meeting was intended to create an environment where people could discuss free speech on campus openly.

The event, which started at 4 p.m. in Copley Formal Lounge, featured talks by Dean of Students James A. Donahue, University President Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., and Law Center professor Peter Byrne, who explained Georgetown’s Speech and Expression policy, and emphasized the need for open discussion of issues of free speech.

After the talks, the audience chose four issues as the focal points for smaller discussion groups. The issues were hate speech, Catholic identity at Georgetown, student publications and sponsorship and responsibility. The last group discussed issues of accountability in cases where university policy is violated.

The meeting happened just four days after the second publication theft of the academic year took place at Georgetown. Five thousand copies of the Feb. 25 issue of The Georgetown Voice disappeared from campus, according to Nicole Gesualdo (COL ’99), editor-in-chief of the Voice. Last semester, a press run of The Georgetown Academy, an off-campus conservative publication, was stolen and placed in a dumpster.

“Obstructing the free exchange of ideas . is an attack on the core principles the university lives by,” according to the university Speech and Expression policy. The policy states that the university permits and encourages free speech on campus, so long as it is not harmful to others or offensive.

Dean Donahue said the university is planning a second forum specifically to assess the content and effectiveness of the Speech and Expression policy, which is now 10 years old. A date for the second forum has not yet been determined.

Donahue, the oversight manager for the university policy said, “We here at Georgetown feel very strongly about the need to protect free speech and expression.” Donahue stressed the importance of open discussion when conflicts arise or controversial speakers come to campus.

O’Donovan spelled out the university’s position on free speech. According to O’Donovan, the three reasons why the university should tolerate free speech are because “Georgetown is a university, because Georgetown is Catholic and Jesuit and because America is a democracy. And allowing…free speech lies at the core of all three traditions.” O’Donovan said the best response to controversial speech is “more speech, not censorship,” and that with speech rights come the duty to exercise them responsibly.

An action such as removing newspapers from campus “violates the ethos” of a Catholic university, O’Donovan said. The university Department of Public Safety is investigating the disappearance of The Voice. Last semester, when The Academy was stolen, the university launched no formal investigation. According to O’Donovan, even though The Georgetown Academy is an off-campus publication, it is covered by the university Speech and Expression policy.

Byrne, who teaches the seminar “Law and Higher Education,” where free speech is a core issue, said the forum was an attempt to structure discussion by asking questions that would spark discussion, but may not lead to answers.

Directly following the talk, audience members posed questions including, “What does the university do in the case when a publication is libelous?” and “Do GU students have more or less freedom than under the first amendment?” These questions were not answered, but rather formed the basis for the topics of the small groups, which were led by law students.

One item discussed by all four groups as a way to start discussion was a case involving a resolution drafted by Life is Precious, a pro-life group at Duke University. The resolution protested a panel discussion sponsored by Duke’s Women Rights Cooperative, a student group, that included Dr. Rita Lang, an obstetrician who has worked part-time at an abortion clinic.

In the group discussing sponsorship and responsibility, Senior Associate Dean of Students Penny Rue said that Georgetown has tried, at times unsuccessfully, to work with groups whose opinions are in conflict to ensure that every group is able to express its opinions. The Diversity Working Group, which encourages diversity at Georgetown, has a Controversy Response Team that works to deal with conflicting campus opinions, Rue said.

The groups later reconvened and shared their ideas. Then Donahue gave some closing remarks.

“These are not easy issues,” Donahue said. “Our goal is to create a community of discourse.”

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