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Students Focus on Free Speech in Georgetown Elections

By February 28, 2014

As Georgetown University students await clarification of the school’s policies governing campus expression, candidates for president and vice president of the Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA) are putting freedom of speech and association at the forefront of their campaigns, demonstrating that these rights are a priority for the student body. While the four two-person teams propose different strategies for protecting speech on campus, all of them have made efforts to address this critically important issue.

The Georgetown student newspaper The Hoya reported yesterday that three teams spoke with H*yas for Choice President Abby Grace “to discuss how best to promote free speech policy on campus.” H*yas for Choice recently brought more attention to the clash between Georgetown’s promises of free expression and its practices of censorship after Georgetown police officers forced the group to stop tabling in their chosen location in Healy Circle on January 20. On Tuesday, the Hoya editorial board endorsed Thomas Lloyd and Jimmy Ramirez for the GUSA and pointed to a problem all students should be concerned about:

Lloyd and Ramirez have articulated precisely what they see as the current policy’s biggest flaw: the culture of “self-censorship” it engenders. Lloyd notes that, as a leader in GU Pride, he is bothered by campus advocates who suppress their own thoughts out of fear of university retribution. This hesitancy from campus activists represents a graver problem than the mere confusion over existing policies.

Lloyd and Ramirez are right to recognize that the “chilling effect” of vague and overbroad policies on student speech is just as serious a problem as direct censorship by administrators.

Though Grace has said that the team of Ben Weiss and Sam Greco did not specifically reach out to H*yas for Choice in crafting its position, Weiss and Greco zealously advocated for free speech rights yesterday in Georgetown’s student news magazine, the Georgetown Voice, citing the incident in Healy Circle. Weiss and Greco wrote:

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right. Georgetown’s religious affiliation does not give the University administration the right to curtail speech, period.

We take this to be a moral argument rather than a legal one (private universities can restrict speech but must be honest about it), as Weiss and Greco are arguing that the whole campus should be a “free speech zone.” While that has unfortunately come to mean quite the opposite on many campuses—where freedom of speech  is restricted to tiny “free speech zones”—a campus-wide free speech zone is indeed what should exist at every university that values open debate.

They also propose the creation of a Special Representative for Free Speech: a member of the GUSA executive cabinet with experience protecting student rights who will be on call to help any student who feels his or her rights are being violated. Noting that “these issues sometimes require immediate, timely responses,” Weiss and Greco see the representative as someone who students will be able to contact at any time. FIRE has emphasized many times the importance of allowing students to express themselves in a timely fashion in response to current events, and we are continually disappointed when schools shut down spontaneous speech by using burdensome advance notice requirements for demonstrations on campus. A student advocate dedicated to spurring a quick response from administrators when there is a conflict between student speakers and school officials could be an asset to all Georgetown students.

It is reassuring to see that whoever wins the election, students will continue to demand that Georgetown uphold its own promise that “all members of the Georgetown University academic community … enjoy the right to freedom of speech and expression.”

Schools: Georgetown University