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Disruption of Petraeus Speech Draws Rebukes from Georgetown Students

Yesterday at Georgetown University, approximately fifteen anti-war protesters attempted to disrupt a speech and accompanying question-and-answer session with David Petraeus, current Commander of the U.S. Central Command. The Hoya reports:

While his speech was originally slated to be an update address sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, after making brief remarks, Petraeus turned the event into a forum for open and candid conversation. He was cut off several times throughout the event, however, due to interruptions by protesters, who rose from their seats to read aloud names and ages of victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The protesters were escorted out after being warned multiple times about the university's free speech policy. [...]

We're very used to this kind of thing at FIRE. All too often, one segment of the college community is offended by even the thought of someone with controversial views (or, for that matter, views simply not in line with their own) being invited to their hallowed campus, and is determined to prevent these views from being heard and any meaningful dialogue on the issues at hand from being conducted. This crude use of the "heckler's veto" is one of the worst manifestations of what Greg calls "unlearning liberty"—a toxic byproduct of a university culture dominated by feverish political correctness and administrative risk aversion.

Fortunately, the other Georgetown students in the audience weren't having it: 

"What I took away from this speech was how embarrassing it was to see those kids standing up. There is a way to go about these things, and it was extremely rude," Matt Loyd (SFS '10) said.

"I feel that freedom of speech is a two-way street, and clearly the protesters didn't feel the need to give Gen. Petraeus a chance to respond," said Matt Hipple (SFS '09), an ensign in the Navy.

Student political groups on campus also criticized the protesters for expressing their views inappropriately.

"We, the Georgetown University College Democrats, believe that right to free speech defines our American democracy. However, it is only when this free speech is combined with a respect for a diversity of opinions that we can have constructive and civil political discourse," William Vogt (SFS '12), GUCD communications director, wrote in a statement. "Short of that, we do ourselves and our nation a disservice when we drown out the voices of those with whom we disagree, closing our minds and stifling debate."

We couldn't have said it better. The Hoya's editorial board had similarly harsh words for the protesters today:

Georgetown's Speech and Discussion [sic] Policy guides us in our approach to on-campus dialogue: "A university is many things; but central to its being is discourse, discussion, debate: the untrammeled expression of ideas and information. This discourse is carried on communally: We all speak and we all listen."

But we did not all listen yesterday when Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, arrived in Gaston Hall to speak to the university community. In fact, we could not listen because a small group of protesters decided to shout over the general, paralyzing his speech in the process. What should have been an event characterized by an intelligent exchange of ideas quickly devolved into a shouting match, with Petraeus acting as little more than a spectator.


Some might argue that yesterday's display was nothing more than students exercising their right to free speech. Free speech, however, can and should be fairly limited by considerations of time, place and manner. Shouting down another individual who has been invited to speak by the university is unacceptable.

Citing the Speech and Expression Policy's prohibition on "making it impossible for others to speak or be heard or seen, or in any way obstructing the free exchange of ideas," the Hoya's editorial board concludes that "[y]esterday's outburst was an embarrassment to this university—as well as to the students who were respectfully attentive to the general—and the protesters ought to be held accountable for their actions."

Bravo, Georgetown students, for learning liberty.

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