After a years-long wait for a clarifying statement about student speech rights, Georgetown University has finally provided one. While Georgetown’s new “Speech and Expression Policy” still has room for improvement, Vice President of Student Affairs Todd Olson, former Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA) President Nate Tisa, and the university’s Speech and Expression Committee have taken a significant step forward with their revisions to the policy.
FIRE’s concerns about free speech on Georgetown’s campus go back to 2010, when the university refused to recognize the student group H*yas for Choice—hence the asterisk in the name. Georgetown contended that the group’s mission conflicted with the university’s Jesuit mission. As FIRE pointed out in our May 2010 letter to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, though, Georgetown recognizes other groups that would be inconsistent with the Jesuit mission, such as Jewish and Muslim groups. A letter in response from Georgetown (PDF) reiterated the institution’s focus on “Catholic moral teaching,” but did not address this double standard. We wrote again in June and once more in August asking for an explanation for the discrepancies between Georgetown’s treatment of H*yas for Choice and its statement in the Speech and Expression policy that “‘time, place and manner’ are the only norms allowable in governing the expression of ideas.”
Confusion about the university’s policies arose again recently after members of H*yas for Choice were forced to move from the outdoor campus location where they were tabling while a pro-life event took place inside Healy Hall on January 20, 2014. Olson and Tisa stated at the time that the group should have been allowed to remain where they were, and Olson promised to provide written clarification by the end of the academic year. H*yas for Choice members objected to the long timeline, and FIRE joined them—after all, Georgetown promises its students and staff “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.” Further, every day that students are left unsure about their rights, their speech will be chilled as they self-censor to avoid punishment.
Georgetown’s student newspaper The Hoya reported last week on the changes:
The new policy designates the lobby of the Leavey Center, Regents Lawn and the Healey Family Student Center as “public squares” for students to exchange ideas, in addition to the previous free-speech zone in Red Square.
The policy also expedites the process for reserving classrooms via the Registrar’s Office by giving students who attend training sessions early in the year eligibility for “fast-track” reservation.
Additionally, the policy includes clarifications that permit protests anywhere on campus if no other university policies are violated and allow groups with access to benefits to co-sponsor events with any other group of students. The memorandum indicates that GUSA and Student Affairs are also working to expand tabling areas to the spaces in front of Lauinger Library and Healy Hall.
These changes will allow students to more freely engage in expressive activities on campus without fear of reprisal, and to do so with less of a delay than before. That’s a significant improvement, and we commend the institution and the reform’s proponents for the positive step forward.
Despite the policy’s improvements, however, the establishment of four official free speech zones is still inconsistent with Georgetown’s stated commitments to free speech. Rather than being confined to specific zones, students should be permitted to engage in expressive activities in any traditionally public areas of campus—greens, lawns, sidewalks, and so forth—so long as those activities do not interfere with the university’s educational functions.
Ironically, it is still unclear whether the new policy would have protected H*yas for Choice on January 20 as they tabled in front of Healy Hall. Despite the apparent allowance for protests outside the free speech zones, the fact that tabling in the space in front of Healy Hall is still a matter of discussion indicates that the free speech zones remain a limit on speech and not merely a suggestion for where students should go.
According to Vox Populi, the blog of the Georgetown Voice student magazine, the new policy contains another provision that presents an improvement, with a caveat:
WGTB DJs can now talk about whatever they want (like those evil condoms that are all the rage these days) on air, provided they don’t say things that “compromise safety, the functioning of the university,” or are “grossly offensive or grossly obscene on matters such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.”
What constitutes “grossly obscene” can be appealed by any student to the Speech and Expression Committee, which can vote to try to correct misapplications of this part of the policy with a two-thirds majority.
Although Georgetown is private and not bound by the First Amendment, the way this limitation is written is inconsistent with the university’s commitment to “the untrammeled expression of ideas and information.” Georgetown can, of course, ban actual obscenity, but on public campuses, even highly offensive ideas are still protected under the First Amendment. As the Supreme Court held in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, “[T]he mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” 410 U.S 667, 670 (1973). Because Georgetown’s policy statements on free speech reasonably give its community members the expectation that they will have the same broad speech rights as they would at a public university, Georgetown should further revise its policy to make clear that students will not be punished simply for saying on the radio something that listeners subjectively find highly offensive.
It is reassuring and commendable that Georgetown has met its own stated deadline and provided students with some guidance as to the extent of their free speech rights on campus. We’re very pleased that GUSA and the administration are moving in the right direction by explicitly opening up more of the campus to free expression and by facilitating classroom reservation requests. However, some work remains still to be done. As ever, FIRE invites Georgetown students, faculty, and administrators to contact us so we can work together to align Georgetown’s policies with its admirably robust promises of free expression.