GU Free Speech Policy Condemned
Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 02:09
On Sept. 5, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released its list of the seven best colleges for free speech; Georgetown, which has been consistently criticized by the organization, was not among them.
In January, FIRE ranked Georgetown a “red light” institution for the sixth consecutive year, citing the university’s policies on harassment and free speech as problematic.
According to FIRE’s website, “red light” institutions have a minimum of one policy that “clearly and substantially” hinders freedom of speech. Such restrictions can include bans on offensive speech and any other policies that restrict student and faculty expression that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment. FIRE released the 2012 free speech rankings, which were determined by surveying publicly available policies from 392 colleges and universities, in its January report.
FIRE highlights the university’s definition of harassment and its stance on bias-related conduct as reasons for its ranking.
Georgetown’s Code of Student Conduct defines harassment as “any intentional or persistent act(s) deemed intimidating, hostile, coercive or offensive.”
According to FIRE’s website, however, for any behavior to be deemed harassment, it must meet a stricter definition.
“In the educational context, harassment must be conduct ‘so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities,” FIRE wrote on its website.
FIRE also holds that bias-related conduct is protected by the First Amendment, unless it rises to the level of harassment. By this definition, Georgetown’s reporting and investigation of bias-related incidents directly violates the the protection of free speech.
Georgetown’s treatment of non-school-affiliated clubs, particularly H*yas for Choice, has also called the university’s free-speech policy into question. These clubs are permitted to set up tables to promote themselves exclusively in Red Square, which is a designated free-speech area on campus because the federal government funded its construction. In theory, H*yas for Choice and other nonaffiliated groups are permitted to table in Leavey Center in the case of inclement weather, but according to Kelsey Warrick (COL ’14), president of H*yas for Choice, access for non-affiliated student groups varies from week to week because Leavey Center is not a designated free-speech area.
“One week, we will be able to table with no issues, and another week, we’ll be sent out into the cold,” Warrick said.
However, both Warrick and Vice President Haylie Jacobson (SFS ’15) said that Georgetown has been very receptive to allowing a club like H*yas for Choice to function on campus.
“We are fortunate that Georgetown gives groups they don’t officially support, like HFC, the opportunity to speak freely in certain settings, namely Red Square,” Jacobson said.
FIRE, however, cites such unequal treatment of clubs as a violation of free speech.
“Georgetown’s Access to Benefits Policy denies groups like H*yas for Choice equal treatment among student groups, contradicting its moral and contractual promises of free speech,” FIRE wrote on its website.
While FIRE lauded Georgetown for allowing Secretary of Health and Human Services Katherine Sebelius to speak at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Tropaia awards ceremony despite backlash from a series of religious and pro-life groups, the organization stressed that the university cannot be selective in its application of free-speech policy.
Despite the consistently low ranking from FIRE, Georgetown Director of Media Relations Rachel Pugh stood by the university’s free-speech policies.
“We believe that our speech and expression policy is very appropriate for our campus community and offers students broad freedom of expression in keeping with our mission as a Catholic and Jesuit university,” Pugh said.