Advocacy and political groups of all kinds rely on robust free speech rights to effectuate their missions. Therefore, it is wise for them to take a stand when those rights are threatened. Last Friday, on July 24, chairs of two student organizations at Georgetown University allied across the political aisle to do just that.
Ajayan Williamson, chair of the Georgetown University College Democrats, and Henry Dai, chair of the College Republicans, co-authored an opinion piece in The Hoya, Georgetown’s student newspaper, that rejected the calls for censorship and institutional harassment of William Torgerson, a fellow Georgetown student.
Torgerson had argued in a blog post that “[t]he United States of America is not systemically racist today,” and “Black Lives Matter and other leftists are wrong regarding racism and injustice.”
In response, the Georgetown University Student Association Senate passed a now hidden resolution condemning the post, as well as another, now-deleted post where Torgerson argued that depression should be stigmatized. The Senate also called for students to flood the university with bias reports against Torgerson and for the university to investigate whether Torgerson qualifies for disciplinary action.
A senator supportive of the resolution argued, “The Senate is well within their rights to request that Georgetown examine this literature and ascertain whether or not it is worthy of a disciplinary action. They are not demanding action or censorship. Just as the article is free speech, so is the bill.”
The senator isn’t wrong that the resolution is itself an exercise of free speech. As long as the Senate doesn’t engage in prohibited actions — like withholding official recognition from a disfavored student organization — or take an adverse action against someone for their protected expression, they haven’t run afoul of Georgetown’s own free speech commitments.
So while the resolution is pro-censorship, it’s expression that FIRE defends all the same. But make no mistake, whatever its supporters may claim, this bill does demand censorship because investigations by governing bodies like universities into obviously protected speech burden speakers and create impermissible chilling effects.
These calls for censorship are protected expression that warrant condemnation, and Williamson and Dai ably provide it. Despite their differing politics, Williamson and Dai defend free speech rights that protect and benefit them both.
They criticize the Senate for seeking “disciplinary consequences on the basis of the political content of [Torgerson’s] speech, a move that puts the university in the untenable position of policing the political opinions of its student body.” They observe that “some students have responded to the blog post with targeted harassment and even death threats, which are unacceptable and must be condemned.”
In contrast to their Senate, Williamson and Dai rightfully argue, “Using institutional power to banish opinions from our discourse that are deemed problematic is not the way to move our goals forward.” Instead they affirm their joint commitment “to fostering the kinds of conversations that will.”
Rights holders cannot always look upstream and hope for benevolent action from those in leadership. As Justice Thurgood Marshall observed more than thirty years ago in a Supreme Court ruling on behalf of a plaintiff disciplined for political speech: “Vigilance is necessary[.]” It is refreshing to see the chairs of the College Democrats and Republicans work together across their differences to exemplify such vigilance.