Students must work to ensure that free speech at Georgetown remains open and respectful in light of the divisive presidential election, according to administrators and free speech student advocates in a Free Speech Open Forum on Nov. 17.
The discussion follows three bias-related incidents reported by the Georgetown University Police Department on and off campus since Nov. 1.
The forum, hosted by the Georgetown University Student Association Free Speech Policy Team and the university Speech and Expression Committee in McShain Lounge, featured Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson and Assistant Dean for Student Engagement Erika Cohen-Derr, alongside Free Speech Policy Team members Ben Costanza (COL ’18) and Jessica Andino (COL ’18).
Olson said the university strongly supports free expression, but draws a line when free speech becomes harassment.
“We have made a strong commitment here to allow students and members of our community to express ideas to a great degree,” Olson said. “The boundary there really only comes about when speech moves into harassment or threats.”
Georgetown’s Free Speech and Expression Policy protects students’ right to free speech on campus, including posting flyers in Red Square and on their residence doors and student groups’ ability to table in Red Square.
Olson said the university faces delicate decisions in differentiating protected forms of speech from harassment.
“This is of course complex territory,” Olson said. “Is a statement that’s making fun of someone’s ethnicity or sexual orientation always harassment? Maybe not. Are there lots of circumstances where it does move into that territory? Yes, there are. And we try to look at the individual facts of each situation.”
Andino encouraged students to report legitimate cases of harassment or abuse.
“It’s important to keep on the lookout for targeted harassment. If a student threatens another student, that needs to be reported,” Andino said. “I think a lot of students don’t know that until someone who knows about it tells them.”
Following the election cycle, which divided the campus community in response to President-elect Donald Trump’s victory, Cohen-Derr said student organizations have an important role to play in contributing a diverse array of perspectives to a campuswide political climate some students consider left-leaning.
“Regarding the election, the College Republicans have the opportunity to address the election outcome in a way that makes available that space for people who are Trump supporters to come and talk about that,” Cohen-Derr said. “We’ve seen programming that espoused the opposite view, but now is the chance for that body to come out and host some programming.”
Costanza said while student culture can shape expression on campus, it is up to students to choose to accept viewpoints with which they disagree.
“The culture of the student body can only be affected by the administration so much. You can’t affect top-down change very easily,” Costanza said. “So it’s up to the students to say, ‘Listen to people.’ The administration and the policy will support free speech, but we have to allow it as students, and we have to encourage it, and make sure people are comfortable, whether they’re an ethnic minority, a sexual orientation minority or a political minority.”
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.