Maybe FIRE was too quick to celebrate when Georgetown University provided a clarifying statement about student speech rights back in May, following repeated urging from students and free speech advocates who called the university out on its inconsistent treatment of students and student groups. On Monday, university police removed the student group H*yas for Choice from where they were tabling just outside the university’s front gates, bringing them back on campus (and away from their intended audience, attendees of a nearby event), before allowing them back outside the gates an hour and a half later. University police have now conceded that they were mistaken in taking these steps—something that should have been obvious at the start.
Torch readers may remember Georgetown’s long history of failing to abide by its own stated promises of freedom of expression on campus. The university’s “Speech & Expression Policy” says:
“Free speech” is central to the life of the university. … The long and short of the matter is that “time, place and manner” are the only norms allowable in governing the expression of ideas and sharing of information that is the very life of the university.
[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.
Georgetown has nevertheless long refused to recognize the student group H*yas for Choice, even after FIRE wrote to the university to explain why this refusal conflicted with Georgetown’s stated commitment to free expression. Georgetown has claimed that recognizing the group would conflict with the institutions’ Jesuit mission, yet it recognizes other groups that are likely to do the same, such as Muslim and Jewish groups.
Free speech advocates and H*yas for Choice members renewed their objection to the university’s viewpoint discrimination in January when group members were forced to move from their tabling spot outside an event in Healy Hall. Soon after, Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson apologized for the incident, but students (and FIRE) still took issue with the university’s restrictive speech codes, which left students unsure about when, where, and how they were allowed to express themselves. Five months later, Georgetown provided a revised policy that opened up more of the campus to free expression and shortened the process for reserving some indoor spaces.
So one might think that Georgetown was on its way to becoming a freer place for students—even for H*yas for Choice. But it’s clear from recent events that at the very least, the university needs to better train its staff in allowing student speech—particularly protests that are time-sensitive and intended to reach a particular audience at a particular location, such as that of H*yas for Choice both in January and this week.
This time, as student newspaper The Hoya reports:
The group decided to table in silent protest of an event occurring in Gaston Hall, in which the university bestowed an honorary degree to Donald Cardinal Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington. Group members said they oppose Wuerl’s positions on LGBTQ rights and women’s health.
Five minutes after they set up on 37th Street, “during prime foot traffic,” a Georgetown University Police Department (GUPD) officer instructed them to move. The Hoya relays the especially perplexing details of this decision:
H*yas for Choice was allowed to table on 37th Street last year, and were in fact told to table in this exact spot after they were removed from Healy Circle during last year’s Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life. After 18 minutes in front of Healy Hall, GUPD relocated the group to this same spot just outside the campus gates.
H*yas for Choice President Abby Grace explained the group’s frustration with Georgetown:
“I think we’ve provided plenty of examples over the past year of them selectively choosing to apply policies that don’t really exist, because they’re not following them, to us,” Grace said. “The thing that’s really angering me right now is that we intentionally went to this spot because last semester when we were tabling in Healy Circle, they asked us to move there. I am dumbfounded why they would ask us to move somewhere in January and then suddenly in September, make it a spot that we’re not allowed to sit anymore.”
Grace also questioned whether university police even had authority over the students outside the university gate, arguing that the location was public property, not the institution’s.
The group’s attempts to table in a permissible location while still reaching students going to the event, however, were effectively thwarted:
The officer offered multiple options for relocation, including Red Square, Copley Lawn or the exterior of Lauinger Library. According to [H*yas for Choice Vice President Vincent] DeLaurentis, these spots took the group completely out of the eyesight of those attending the event in Gaston.
With the help of the GUPD officer, the students moved their table to Copley Lawn, where they tabled for an hour, obstructed by a large black gate. After that time passed, the same officer approached the table for a second time, and told the students that they could return to the public sidewalk.
This is a perfect example of why, regardless of written policies, university staff must be properly educated on student rights. Even temporary misunderstandings can deprive students of unique opportunities to share their message.
According to an email sent to FIRE, Georgetown’s chief of police acknowledged GUPD’s error, and Grace and DeLaurentis had plans to meet with university officials today about the incident. FIRE is glad to see the two students have the opportunity to once again confront administrators about their mixed (if not hostile) messages about the expressive rights of student organizations. But our optimism is waning after four years of urging the university to bring its policies and practices in line with its claim to value freedom of speech.
Check back to The Torch for updates on the situation.
UPDATE: A group of 232 Georgetown alumni have written a letter to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia expressing their dismay over the recent H*yas for Choice situation and urging the university to live up to its promises of free speech.