Free Speech for 18 Minutes
Published: Friday, January 24, 2014
Updated: Saturday, January 25, 2014 02:01
Before we even sat down, we knew we wouldn’t have long. We didn’t bring any signs, and we made no noise. Just as we would on any other weekday morning, members of H*yas for Choice sat at a bench with our table, a banner and a bowl of condoms — just in a different location. When it was all said and done, it took 18 minutes for the Georgetown University Police Department to respond to a complaint about H*yas for Choice’s presence in Healy Circle on the morning of Jan. 20.
We presented the responding officers with copies of the Free Speech and Expression Policy, referring them to specific points in the document that outlined our rights to protest events. Because the responding officers recognized that we were students, they then notified their superiors and summoned more GUPD officials to the scene. After GUPD sent at least six officers to confront five student members, they gave us an ultimatum: Move to Red Square, or leave campus property.
Although H*yas for Choice does not agree with the opinions expressed at Monday’s Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, our decision to protest was not exclusively motivated by the views presented at that event. Just as H*yas for Choice has the right to speak freely on Georgetown University’s campus, we recognize that other groups share this same right.
The most insulting part of our encounter with GUPD was the initial justification for our removal. As one GUPD officer remarked, certain members of the community didn’t want us here. Every officer who came to the scene agreed that we were not disrupting any events nor being disrespectful. As recently as last semester, other groups, most notably “One Georgetown, One Campus,” have staged protests in Healy Circle without reserving the space. Our only crime was sitting on a bench with a banner that read, “H*yas for Choice.”
Members of H*yas for Choice and other marginalized groups on campus are often met with the sentiment that our presence is not wanted. Instead of being recognized as a contribution to a campus that strives for diversity, we are treated like a nuisance that undermines the university’s image. This attitude is not representative of a community that celebrates free speech — it is indicative of an environment that cultivates fear of those who might disagree. By prohibiting some students from participating in a free exchange of ideas, Georgetown hinders our ability to learn from one another.
On Thursday, Jan. 16, Georgetown University Student Association sponsored a forum on the Free Speech and Expression Policy. While all of the administrators present were passionate about upholding “standards promoting speech and expression that foster the maximum exchange of ideas and opinions” and ensuring “a balanced approach in all communications and the inclusion of contrary points of view,” the disconnect between written policy and implementation quickly became clear.
Although Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson promised a new Free Speech and Expression Policy by the end of the semester, we do not believe the validity of our complaints was fully appreciated. It seemed as if much of the blame was placed on “conventional wisdom,” not recognition that the policy itself clashes with students’ day-to-day experiences.
Monday’s removal of H*yas for Choice from Healy Circle proves that free speech on Georgetown University’s campus does, in fact, carry consequences. GUPD failed to recognize the spirit of the Free Speech and Expression Policy, specifically the statement that “Georgetown’s identification with the Catholic and Jesuit tradition, far from limiting or compromising the ideal of free discourse, requires that we live up to that ideal. … Making it impossible for others to speak or be heard or seen, or in any way obstructing the free exchange of ideas, is an attack on the core principles the University lives by and may not be tolerated.”
H*yas for Choice stands proudly with this call for inclusivity, dialogue, respect and tolerance. We can only hope that other members of the university community embrace rather than fear the opportunities that pluralism creates.
Laura Narefsky is a senior in the College. Abby Grace is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. They are president and vice president of H*yas for Choice, respectively.