A Chance for Georgetown to Own Up to Its True Values

By on May 4, 2010

Is Georgetown University going to live up to its free speech promises or not? A group of pro-choice students at Georgetown, H*yas for Choice, wants equal treatment with other groups on campus, but has been told that it does not deserve equal treatment because its mission conflicts with Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit identity.

That would be perfectly fine if Georgetown had not actually promised its students and faculty that free expression is fundamental to Georgetown’s own vision of its Catholic and Jesuit identity. And, it would be more understandable if Georgetown had not already provided official recognition and substantial benefits to at least two groups that are explicitly and unequivocally not Catholic in mission, identity, or conduct—a Jewish group and a Muslim group.

It seems unavoidable that these groups would "[d]irectly and substantially advocate[] positions inconsistent with Roman Catholic moral tradition" in their mission or practices, and that they by nature are "considered inconsistent with acceptable conduct at an American university committed to the Roman Catholic moral tradition," and are therefore in the same boat as H*yas for Choice. If I am wrong, I would appreciate being corrected.

Yet, if I am corrected, how is a student to take Georgetown’s public promises of free expression and its assertion that "[a] university that sends contrary ‘signals’ to any of its members (as, obviously, by tolerating plagiarism, violence, intellectual shoddiness, or any sort of special pleading in the interest of ideology or vested interest) betrays its mission"? (Boldface and links added.)

As a follow-up to my op-ed in the Eagle, American University’s student newspaper, FIRE today is sending this letter to Georgetown’s president. Here’s how the letter ends:

Again, Georgetown has a First Amendment right to freedom of association which permits the university to determine its own mission and values. Some students and faculty members may indeed wish to be part of an institution that places ideology, religious values, and other "vested interests" above free speech and equal treatment. Yet, Georgetown may not promise something that it simultaneously refuses to deliver. The campus community deserves an explanation why Georgetown seems to have chosen to promulgate a free speech policy that does not mean in practice what it plainly says. Please clarify Georgetown’s position in this matter.

FIRE hopes to resolve this question so that members of the Georgetown and wider communities will better understand what Georgetown values. Is the university dedicated to a free marketplace of ideas or to an unequal playing field? Saint Thomas Aquinas did not shy away from confronting the fullest variety of objections to a vast number of theological questions, and Father Peter Abelard did not shy away from confronting the sic and non aspects of many controversial issues; does Georgetown?

Read both the op-ed and today’s letter for all the details. I look forward to gaining a better understanding of just what Georgetown stands for—or against.

Schools: Georgetown University Cases: Georgetown University: Unequal Treatment of Student Organizations