Georgetown University’s strained relationship with free speech has long been home to one of American academia’s most absurd products of censorship, the pro-choice student group H*yas for Choice. Now Georgetown is back in the news again with the latest chapter in the Chronicles of Making Things Ridiculous Through Censorship.
Back in 2010, FIRE wrote Georgetown on three separate occasions about its refusal to accord H*yas for Choice equal treatment with other student groups. While Georgetown cited its Catholic and Jesuit mission as a reason to refuse to recognize H*yas for Choice, FIRE pointed out (and has repeatedly pointed out since then) that Georgetown loudly promises free speech. For instance, its Speech and Expression policy reads:
[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.
Obviously, this is not true, as the campus pro-choice group not only cannot be officially recognized but also must use a ridiculous asterisk in its name (as if this somehow makes its arguments less convincing to students or its connection to Georgetown less evident). As a private school, Georgetown has the right to censor students and their group names, but it does not have the right to make broad, lofty claims about free speech (as it does) and then say “just kidding” when it comes to certain issues (as it also does). FIRE has asked Georgetown to make its position on speech clear to students. It didn’t bother to respond and instead opted to leave students confused.
This has had the predictable result of free speech controversies popping up on campus. Two weeks ago, Georgetown student newspaper The Hoya (look, no asterisk!), in a report about a free speech forum held on campus, noted again that Georgetown’s promises of free speech conflict with its practices. Then, when H*yas for Choice decided to set up a table in the campus’ Healy Circle on January 20 (in response to an assertion at the forum by Georgetown Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson that Georgetown did not have a restrictive free speech zone on campus), Georgetown University police reportedly removed them from the area with breathtaking speed, saying that they were not in the appointed free speech zone for Georgetown.
If you think that makes no sense, just wait: Apparently, it’s not even clear to Olson what Georgetown’s current policy on free speech might be. According to the Vox Populi blog of the Georgetown Voice weekly magazine, which asked him about the incident:
“We are looking into our implementation of the Speech and Expression policy and relevant guidelines on tabling in the weeks ahead,” said Olson.
In an email to Vox this morning, Olson further commented on the disparity between his statements at the free speech forum and GUPD’s actions: ”[The administration is] currently reviewing guidelines for tabling. It is not clear that tabling should be permitted in all locations on campus, and in practice tabling has been managed in a way that’s different from expressing views. We are still reviewing whether H*yas for Choice was or was not violating current policy.”
That’s right: Georgetown has its police department enforcing a policy on free speech so confusing that even the administrators in charge of it have no clear idea what it is.
Does this sound like an environment that encourages free thought and open dialogue?
Here’s a suggestion: Georgetown can clear up the confusion about its speech restrictions by eliminating the restrictions altogether and living up to its promises of free speech. Because let’s face it: When your campus’ censorship regulations have become so convoluted that even an army of administrators and police can’t figure out what they say, it’s time to consider the radical step of letting people freely speak their minds on campus.