Georgetown Students Work to Change Speech Codes

By October 9, 2013


Georgetown University students have expressed discontent with the school’s free speech zones before, but now the Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA) is taking steps towards making sure students can speak freely on campus. Georgetown’s student newspaper, The Hoya, reports that while the school’s Speech and Expression Committee (comprising four undergraduate students and four faculty members) previously met only after reports of speech code violations, this year the committee will be more proactive in working with the vice president for student affairs to make the school’s policies clearer and more protective of speech.

GUSA Deputy Chief of Staff Tane Arana-Humphries explained that the committee plans on taking on Georgetown’s designation of two free speech zones on campus:

“Our biggest task would be free speech zones where, instead of having one zone on campus where students can have complete free speech … have campus itself be a free speech zone where certain places are protected,” GUSA Deputy Chief of Staff Tane Arana-Humphries (SFS ’15), a student representative on the Speech and Expression Committee, said. “There are certain places given, like the cemetery or President DeGioia’s office, where you should be respectful. But for the rest of the campus, we’re educated adults and should be able to express our opinions.”

Arana-Humphries also noted that the school’s policies aren’t always clear:

“A lot of the wording is ambiguous. We need more concrete language on what exactly students can or cannot do, where those boundaries lie,” she said. “We don’t want to have a situation where a certain group has a certain opinion and the administration might have the right to stifle that.”

While Georgetown is a private institution, it clearly promises students freedom of expression in its speech and expression policy, stating that “all members of the Georgetown University academic community … enjoy the right to freedom of speech and expression” and “the right to express points of view on the widest range of public and private concerns and to engage in the robust expression of ideas.” But Georgetown nevertheless maintains speech codes that contradict this promise and earn the school a “red light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database.

Further, the school continues to refuse to enforce its policies in an evenhanded manner. For example, three years after FIRE urged Georgetown to keep its promise of freedom of speech and recognize pro-choice student group H*yas for Choice, the group is still unrecognized (hence the asterisk). H*yas for Choice President Laura Narefsky remarked to The Hoya on the lack of administrative tolerance for free speech on campus and said, “There is a problem of understanding and accepting that students who have other views exist in our living space.”

GUSA President Nate Tisa emphasized that it is not just the written policies impacting expression on campus: “We don’t have a culture at Georgetown for free speech, and that takes a long time to fix, because it’s also about student culture and the way we interact with each other.”

FIRE commends the GUSA for recognizing that Georgetown’s policies must be revised in order to comport with its promises of free expression, and for taking action to ensure that the necessary changes are made. We hope that GUSA’s advocacy will mean future Georgetown students will be able to participate vigorously in the “marketplace of ideas” without struggling against school administrators. Of course, students who are inspired to help make sure their schools’ policies are consistent with institutional promises of freedom of speech or (in the case of public colleges) the First Amendment can always check out FIRE’s resources and ask us for help!

Image: H*yas for Choice proteset outside the Georgetown Intercultural Center - Wikipedia