Georgetown fails to live up to free speech promises by not recognizing pro-choice student group

By March 29, 2018

Georgetown University’s claims concerning its deeply held religious convictions regarding abortion are in conflict with the university’s numerous free speech promises to students and faculty. Again.

H*yas for Choice, a pro-choice student group, has been the subject of institutional ire at Georgetown for years, and at the center of an ongoing saga involving refusal of recognition and frequent censorship by the administration. This month, calls have been renewed for Georgetown to live up to its free speech promises and officially recognize the embattled group.

Although the university promises its students and faculty the right to engage in free expression, it has repeatedly failed to live up to these commitments. This is not the first time FIRE has criticized a college administration for promising a free exchange of ideas and delivering punishment and censorship instead. Unlike public institutions that are fully bound by the First Amendment, private universities like Georgetown are free to prioritize other values above free expression. However, when such institutions publicly advertise and guarantee freedom of expression to students and faculty as Georgetown has, they are morally — and perhaps legally — bound to uphold those promises.

A recent editorial authored by the editorial board of the Georgetown student newspaper The Hoya aptly points out the tension between Georgetown’s policies and practices. The board writes:

For a university to openly silence a student group based on whether or not it aligns with Catholic or Jesuit values is not only wrong — it is in violation of Georgetown’s own speech policies.

Since the university promises to uphold the free speech rights of its students in official policy, it is reasonable for students to expect Georgetown will provide them with free speech rights commensurate with those of their peers at public institutions. But clearly, that is not the case.

In the past, Georgetown has refused to officially recognize H*yas for Choice due to the group’s “stated purpose [that] conflicts with Catholic moral teaching.” However, this logic is puzzling, as FIRE stated, because Georgetown recognizes several other student groups such as Muslim and Jewish groups, whose stated purposes would also seemingly conflict with the university’s Catholic mission. Today, H*yas for Choice remains an unrecognized student group.

For student groups seeking to attract new members and spread their groups’ ideas, lack of recognition by the university poses an immense hurdle. Official university recognition bestows all sorts of privileges on student groups, such as permission to reserve rooms for meetings and the ability to post on bulletin boards or send campus-wide emails, not to mention funding from the student government. These privileges represent important ways in which student groups disseminate their message and recruit new members. Without such benefits, groups often disband or lose momentum, depriving students of a chance to associate with those who share their convictions or interests.  

Thus, Georgetown once again finds its treatment of a student organization with values contrary to the Catholic Church in tension with its written guarantees of free expression.

Just last summer, Georgetown even adopted an affirmative free speech statement, in addition to its other written policies promising to protect free speech. The “Policy on Speech and Expression,” based largely on the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (better known as the “Chicago Statement”), extends beyond core First Amendment principles by pledging that the university will encourage and embrace debate about controversial ideas on its campus.

The Georgetown administration’s role in quelching H*yas for Choice is the exact opposite of what the university allegedly aspires to achieve, according to its Policy on Speech and Expression, which reads: “It is not the proper role of a university to insulate individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” Georgetown’s treatment of the pro-choice student group fundamentally breaks this promise.

We hope Georgetown recognizes its inconsistencies and chooses to uphold the free speech rights of its students. In doing so, it would fulfill its own promise to “provide all members of the University community, including faculty, students, and staff, the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”

Schools: Georgetown University