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Georgetown Sets Unambitious Timeline for Protecting Student Speech

On January 20, members of the Georgetown University student group 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. But despite clear statements from Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson and Georgetown University Student Association President Nate Tisa that the university’s policies did not prohibit the group from tabling where they were, students are still awaiting clarification of the school’s policies governing campus expression.

Last week, the university’s Free Speech and Expression Committee met to discuss the issue. Olson apologized to H*yas for Choice for what happened on January 20, and promised to provide a document clarifying the school’s policies—to students and to administrators—by the end of the academic year. H*yas for Choice President Laura Narefsky explained why this deadline was not soon enough:

“Clarity needs to come now. I understand that administrators want to make sure that they’re putting out the most thoughtful document possible, but the longer they wait, the longer students are operating in this limbo,” Narefsky said. “I think that the sooner we can all agree to some kind of modification and clarification of the speech and expression document, the better.”

Narefsky is right to call for swifter action from the Georgetown administration. As long as the university’s policies remain ambiguous, Georgetown students may self-censor to avoid punishment, and Georgetown administrators may repeat incidents of censorship like the one of January 20. Georgetown administrators should therefore make every effort to affirm student free speech rights as soon as possible. As the Supreme Court noted in Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976), “The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”

Fortunately, one of the advantages of fully protecting student speech is that it makes policies relatively simple to craft. Particularly with Georgetown’s broad promises of free speech, any provisions restricting speech should be brief, clear, and focused only on unprotected speech and truly disruptive conduct. Georgetown could even look to a “green light” school for guidance. And of course, FIRE is always happy to work directly with schools in order to revise their policies to protect students’ speech rights.

Georgetown students should continue to demand that Georgetown uphold its own statements on free speech—not in a few months, but right now. Georgetown promises:

[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.

Check back to The Torch for updates.

Image: Healy Hall, Georgetown University – Wikipedia

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