Charles Nailen/The Hoya Father James Walsh, S.J., encourages the pursuit of dialogue at the Student Speech and Expression Forum Monday night in cNeir Auditorium.

Georgetown’s Committee on Speech and Expression sponsored a Student Speech and Expression Forum last night in McNeir Auditorium. University President John J. DeGioia and Professor Deborah Tannen spoke to about a 70-person audience comprised of students, administrators and faculty.

The forum was introduced by Law Center Professor J. Peter Byrne and led by panelists Rev. James P.M. Walsh, S.J., and Andrew Koneschucky (MSB ’03).

Byrne opened by explaining that speech and expression policies are a contested topic on many college campuses. He pointed out that while policies are unique to each school, as a private institution Georgetown is not subject to the first amendment concerning free speech. Georgetown’s current policy was drafted in the fall of 1986 and implemented in January of 1989.

Georgetown’s policy “supports open and free expression [that] permits the widest possible discourse because we believe in three things: value of intellectual discourse, integrity of individuals and the ability of members of the community to work toward truth,” DeGioia said.

DeGioia acknowledged that Georgetown does not particularly endorse any of its speakers and that consequently there have been controversial speakers that spurred much debate. But he asked “If you can’t debate controversial ideas here, where can you debate them? That’s the responsibility of the academy.”

Tannen followed DeGioia and discussed concepts of how people raise their different viewpoints, as elucidated in her book The Argument Culture. She lauded President DeGioia as being “brave and courageous” for upholding Georgetown’s speech and expression policy.

Tannen also discussed how many debates are polarized and only have two extreme sides. These she said are “dangers” which often work in negating a commitment to the widest possible debate. “Many issues have complex, nuanced overlapping sides,” she said. “If we reduce issues to two-sided debate that often leads us to ignore those complex nuances.”

Tannen differed with DeGioia, however, when it came to allowing or supporting speakers on campus who would, even in expressing their opinions, spread historical and scientific lies. She offered an extreme example to clarify her point, claiming she would not support a speaker who said that Catholics kidnapped children and drank their blood, because this was blatantly not true.

“In a democracy, rights come along with responsibilities,” she said. One of those responsibilities, Tannen believes, involves not spreading misinformation.

But audience member Jack Ternan (COL ’04) disagreed. “Most people are relativists and have a valid opinion in their own eyes,” he said. Thus, Ternan said even extreme speakers who may spread wrong information should be allowed to come because people could decide for themselves whether or not a speaker has a worthwhile opinion.

After DeGioia and Tannen, Fr. Walsh added that a key principle in the speech and expression policy is that it encourages dialogue. “You never say `shut up’ but always `let’s talk,'” Walsh said. Koneschucky, also a member of the Lecture Fund, agreed that increased dialogue, ideas and even arguments are vital to a speech and expression policy such as the one Georgetown employs.

Audience member Chris Henderson (SFS ’03) asked about the boundaries the university can draw for what he called the “security of person.” In other words, how far the university would be willing to go in order to protect a student from a potential fabrication about him or her in a publication.

Henderson, however, did not feel his question was answered thoroughly by DeGioia. Henderson referred to an example involving the independent student publication The Georgetown Academy and attacks made on a student as being anti-Semitic.

Koneschucky said that he likes the current policy because it allows people to be “free to speak their minds and listen to others regardless of how ridiculous an opinion may be. It’s just that simple.”

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