‘Free Speech Off the Table’ at Georgetown University

January 15, 2013

Georgetown University’s student newspaper, The Hoya, ran a staff editorial today criticizing the university’s use of “free speech zones.” According to the paper, Georgetown held a student activities fair over the weekend at which officially recognized student groups were given space to set up tables and recruit new members. Unrecognized groups, on the other hand, were relegated to the free speech zones at Red Square or the Leavey Center.

The Hoya‘s editorial is notable for several reasons. First and foremost, it is extremely heartening to see the staff of a student newspaper speak out collectively in support of greater free speech rights on campus. Student advocacy is often one of the most critical elements in bringing about change on campus, so FIRE is glad to see that Georgetown students are concerned about their free speech rights.

Second, Hoya staffers recognize the hypocrisy displayed by Georgetown and so many other private schools when they promise free speech and then instead deliver an overly restrictive environment. They write:

In general terms, Georgetown’s speech policy points to the right values: the university as a forum for discourse, free speech as a priority of the academic community and tolerance for individual or group-held protest. The specifics of which groups are given such rights, however, have created an environment where speech is limited and only exceptionally “free.”

Indeed, Georgetown maintains extremely robust commitments to free speech, with a Speech and Expression Policy (PDF) which provides that

[A]ll members of the Georgetown University academic community, which comprises students, faculty and administrators, enjoy the right to freedom of speech and expression. This freedom includes 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.

Yet Georgetown’s free speech zones and other speech codes stand in direct conflict with this institutional commitment and, as the Hoya staff says, “create[ ] an environment where speech is limited” and where free speech is the exception rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, the final way in which the editorial is noteworthy is that it reflects a common but very fundamental misunderstanding of the right to free speech. While heavily criticizing the university for its free speech zones, the paper’s staff states that “it may be necessary at times to curtail speech that is offensive” and that Georgetown’s policies should prohibit “only the most hurtful forms of speech, such as hate speech.” But the right to free speech—which Georgetown claims to protect—is meaningless if it protects only speech that is inoffensive. Indeed, it is the speech that prompts the most calls for censorship that is in greatest need of protection. As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989). While certain narrow categories of speech—such as speech both intended to and likely to produce imminent lawless action, or speech that constitutes unlawful harassment—fall outside the protection of the First Amendment, the vast majority of speech, including much of what is commonly considered “hate speech,” is constitutionally protected and should be similarly protected at a private university that promises free speech.

These concerns notwithstanding, we are very happy to see a student newspaper speak out in defense of students’ free speech rights, and we hope the Georgetown administration will take its students’ concerns seriously. And as always, FIRE is here to help.

Schools:  Georgetown University