Hoyas United for Free Speech, a recently-formed unaffiliated coalition of students concerned with expression and diversity of speech on campus, is seeking extensive reforms to Georgetown’s policies and practices in a petition addressing “the state of free speech on campus.”
The students are calling for Dr. Todd Olson, vice president of student affairs, to remove restrictions on campus free speech zones, increase diversity of speakers and classes, and expand support for “currently unrecognized marginalized communities.” Their demands also include maintaining separation of the LGBTQ Center, Women’s Center, and Center for Multicultural Equity and Access, securing funding for interpretation for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and developing safe spaces for the disabled community on campus.
The campaign is not recognized by the university and intends to remain independent going forward. Their next step will be to deliver the petition to Dr. Olson, allowing future actions to depend on the university’s response.
“If the university would really like to work with us, and would like to engage with us in a substantive manner on these issues, we’d be happy to do that,” Vincent DeLaurentis (SFS ‘17), a founding member of the coalition wrote in an email to the Voice. “But we’re also committed to making sure that speech is protected, and we’re not going to stop if the university ignores us or takes actions that continue to be oppressive of speech.”
“We haven’t had any issues with using the name Hoyas up to this point [despite being unaffiliated],” DeLaurentis noted. “We would hope that the university would respect our use of the name as members of the Georgetown community. At this point, we consider ourselves more of a campaign and less of a group. However, it has become clear, especially after the failure of the Memorandum of Understanding, that there will need to be a group that monitors the university’s implementation of speech policy. Whether this is HUFS or another group should be decided at a later date.”
“There’s been some long-term frustrations with free speech on campus and how it’s handled, and just really wild inconsistencies in how it’s applied,” said Erin Riordan (COL ‘15), another of the coalition’s leading members.
Free speech zones currently include Red Square and the lobby of the Leavey Center, a designation that Hoyas United for Free Speech hope to change. The letter to Dr. Olson calls for “a firm timeline for the eventual elimination of specified ‘free speech zones’ (tabling areas) in favor of campus-wide protections for free speech.” It also asks that the university “immediately expand free speech zones (tabling areas) to include the sidewalks around Healy Circle and in front of Healy Hall,” which includes the area from which H*yas for Choice were removed in September.
The students also hope to reclassify folding tables as non-permanent structures. “If you are tabling, you are assembling a permanent structure, and if the university doesn’t want you to be tabling, they can accuse you of building something you shouldn’t be building and force you to leave,” said HUFS member Lexi Dever (COL ‘16).
“This [campaign]isn’t just about tabling or having broader free speech zones,” said Riordan, though she notes those issues necessitate more immediate solutions. The petition also demands that administrators diversify speakers that are brought to campus and the content of academic courses in order to be more inclusive of underrepresented perspectives and identities.
“I’m so excited about this campaign [because]it also looks at speakers on campus and in our classes, both in terms of what classes are offered and incorporating speech in our classes, and acknowledging that when you hear a limited perspective of voices, when you read texts by exclusively white authors or by exclusively men, you’re not really getting free speech … and that’s really harmful for students and our education,” Riordan said.
The petition has collected 250 signatures as of Oct. 21, according to DeLaurentis. In order to uphold the principles of equal speech that it aims to promote, the group operates as “a non-hierarchal collectivist movement” and emphasizes ideological diversity as a key goal. In addition to individual signatures, they are also accepting endorsements from organizations who want to vocalize their support.
“We have H*yas for Choice signing on to it, we have Georgetown University Fossil Free, we have Georgetown Solidarity Committee,” DeLaurentis said. “We also have some smaller clubs who aren’t recognized by the university … there’s a variety of groups signing on for a variety of different reasons.”
While Georgetown’s Catholic identity has often been a concern in discussions of free speech, Dever views this identity as vital to the promotion of diverse speech.
“As long as Georgetown professes to be a university, it kind of has to permit free speech for everyone. It has to permit us to have the free exchange of ideas that a university is all about,” said Dever. “We need to be able to talk about things that are hard for us to talk about, and that do challenge our Catholic values as a university, because if we don’t do that, then we never grow in our understanding.”
Photo by Gavin Myers