In today’s edition of The Eagle, American University’s student paper, Adam Kissel offers his opinion on how individual rights transcend partisan divides. As anyone who has followed FIRE’s work knows, FIRE is proudly nonpartisan. Our staff hails from across the political and religious spectrum, and our cases demonstrate that campus censorship can strike persons of every ideological persuasion.
Adam cites two current controversies:
While the Supreme Court considers whether belief-based student organizations deserve equal rights on campus, two more universities have been facing this very issue. Georgetown University is facing it over a pro-choice group, the University of Arizona over a pro-life group.
Arizona denied the student group Students for Life’s application for official recognition because its members were (not surprisingly) required to believe that "life is sacred and that the intentional killing of human beings through abortion, euthanasia, and murder, and that all forms of eugenics are morally reprehensible." After FIRE intervened, the university reversed its decision and upheld Students for Life’s freedom of association. As Adam writes, "Universities don’t like to be shown up as hypocritical when it comes to freedom of speech or freedom of association."
Adam then turns to a similar situation at Georgetown involving the other side of the ideological spectrum.
The shoe is on the other foot at Georgetown University, which has prevented a pro-choice group from receiving fair treatment on campus. Georgetown is a private university not bound by the First Amendment, but it is bound, morally and contractually, by its own promises. Georgetown entices students by telling them, "A university is many things but central to its being is discourse, discussion, debate: the untrammeled expression of ideas and information." Georgetown adds that "Catholic and Jesuit tradition, far from limiting or compromising the ideal of free discourse, requires that we live up to that ideal."
Georgetown has so far refused to grant the student group H*yas for Choice official recognition, which would include being allowed to remove the asterisk from its name.
According to Georgetown’s Vice President for Student Affairs Todd A. Olson, "As a Catholic and Jesuit university, our policies must reflect our identity and our values," but H*yas for Choice promotes ideas "inconsistent with Roman Catholic moral tradition" and must remain off of the list.
Maybe they do. But so do other groups already recognized by the university, such as the Muslim Students Association and the Jewish Students Association. While this is Georgetown’s decision to make, it would seem to an outside observer that groups adhering to other religions are at least as inconsistent with Catholic teaching as H*yas for Choice.
Speaking of Catholic teaching, Adam asks, "What about the great Catholic and Jesuit moral tradition of permitting untrammeled expression, as Georgetown promised?" Adam continues:
Wouldn’t a great university want to give students even greater protection to "think the unthinkable, mention the unmentionable," as Yale University promises, than even the First Amendment offers citizens at large? Why should a university restrict rather than expand the right to free speech?
From a logical perspective, it’s difficult to see how the search for the truth benefits from Georgetown’s censorship. If Georgetown believes that H*yas for Choice is misguided in its views, let it speak and be refuted. If it is right, the whole campus benefits from its speech. As John Milton wrote more than three and a half centuries ago, "[W]ho ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?" Georgetown isn’t legally required to allow free expression on campus. But how can it justify promising freedom and then not delivering on that promise?
Adam closes with a call for support of free expression, the guiding light of FIRE’s mission:
However you feel about abortion, if you think free speech principles and promises mean anything substantial, you should be protecting the equal rights of pro-life students at Arizona and pro-choice students at Georgetown. How can one group expect equal treatment if it refuses to advocate equal treatment for all, despite fundamental disagreements?
Well said, Adam.