The limits on free expression: Red tape and Red Square

April 11, 2013

The president had the general doing PR.

On Jan. 20, 2010, General David Petraeus began a week-long tour to shore up support for the U.S.’s continuing mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. He started in Atlanta, Ga., where he taped an interview with CNN. His journey continued the next day in Washington, D.C. where he was scheduled to make three media appearances.

His small caravan of black SUVs rolled into Healy Circle early in the afternoon. He and his aides stepped out of the car and made their way into the hall.

The event in Gaston Hall was crowded—and understandably so. The four-star general was the commander of the U.S. Central Command and the highest profile military officer in America. He could have been a leading contender for the Republican nomination for president, if he wanted the job.

Shortly after Petraeus began speaking, a student rose from his seat and began shouting.

“I interrupt this speech in honor of the dead,” he cried, and proceeded to read aloud names of Iraqi civilians who died in the conflict. But, soon after the interruption, the audience’s jeering drowned out the student’s voice. He did not resist the Department of Public Safety officers who escorted him outside.

After Petraeus resumed speaking, another student stood up, and continued where the first protester had left off.

This process continued, student after student, denying Petraeus the opportunity to finish his joke about Syracuse basketball. Director of Student Programs Erika Cohen-Derr warned the protesters they were in violation of Georgetown’s speech and expression policy.

“In accordance with Georgetown University’s speech and expression policy, you have the right to ask questions in the format designated by the event’s sponsor,” she said. “You do not have the right to disrupt the speaker and disrupt the audience members’ participation in the event.”

When the protesters continued, unfazed by the threat of disciplinary action, Cohen-Derr recognized that the protesters knew what they were doing. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you are going to continue to disrupt this event, you will no longer receive a warning. You will be escorted from the event,” Cohen-Derr said, to applause.

Audience members began chanting “USA! USA! USA!” in attempt to drown out the protesters.

Amid the shouting, Petraeus was temporarily denied the privilege of speaking, saying only, “I hope that there is equal attention given to the casualties caused by the Taliban.”

This incident illustrates the conflicts present in the ongoing debate surrounding the speech policy on campus. Georgetown as a private institution is not legally obligated to protect any forms of speech, much less forms of protesting or civil disobedience. In 1989, however, the University implemented the speech and expression policy, which guarantees members of the University community access to public space on campus to meet and discuss issues, as well as demarcates the boundaries of Georgetown’s unrestricted free-speech zone to Red Square.

Though the policy grants the academic community broad speech privileges, immediate decisions regarding how to enforce the policy are left up to the vice president for student affairs. Certain sections of the policy are vague and open to multiple interpretations, which has led to an irregular pattern of enforcement in recent years.

Further, Red Square’s designation as the sole speech zone on campus inhibits the ability to acquire the publicity that is needed to reach the larger student body, whose time and attention is already stiffly contested by a number of student groups.

Georgetown’s policy protects all forms of civil discourse but not every form of nonviolent protest, and, in the school’s history, the disciplinary hammer has fallen rather arbitrarily.


Georgetown’s present speech policy was established in the aftermath of a heavy-handed response to nonviolent protesters in 1986. In the spring of that year, several student groups had organized demonstrations to protest the University’s investments in companies doing business in Apartheid-era South Africa. As part of a prolonged demonstration on White-Gravenor patio, a group of students took over the entrance to the building and established “Freedom College.”

Once students built shanty accommodations in order to extend the length of their protest, then-Dean for Student Affairs John DeGioia called University Police and, in conjunction with Metropolitan police officers, had the protesters forcibly removed. 35 students total were arrested, though charges were later dropped.

DeGioia’s decision drew sharp criticism from faculty and students, who believed the students’ protest did not interrupt University function or threaten students’ health or safety. But, at the time, DeGioia had free rein to act as he pleased as dean of students, for the University had no speech policy encoded in the student handbook.

Soon after the events on White-Gravenor patio, a committee was formed and charged with forming a speech code which clarified students’ rights regarding civil dialogue, protesting, and demonstrations. Over a period of two-and-a-half years, the committee worked out a policy which ensured the “untrammeled expression of ideas and information” among every member of the academic community.

An early draft of the policy prohibited spontaneous protesting and required that protesters receive administrative approval three to seven days in advance of a demonstration, which students, on the whole, objected to. Then-Managing Editor of The Hoya Chris Donesa (COL ‘89) was quoted in the now-defunct magazine Blue & Gray, saying that the proposal threatened to “make protests, inherently emotional events, a bureaucratic event.”

In January 1989, the new policy took effect after “widespread consultation with faculty, students and administrators.” The preamble of the policy explained the committee’s reasoning for how civil discourse should take place, drawing off of the tradition set by Medieval Catholic universities. “A university is many things, but central to its being is discourse, discussion, debate: the untrammeled expression of ideas and information,” co-author of the policy Fr. James Walsh, S.J., wrote.

Walsh placed civility, learning, and respect in high esteem: “Ideally, discourse is open and candid and also—ideally—is characterized by courtesy, mutual reverence, and even charity.”

The final document was a compromise, of sorts, between students pushing for impromptu demonstration zones and administrators looking to place limits on when and where students could gather.

Every space on campus requires reservation beforehand for public meetings of any kind—except for Red Square, which any student may use during daylight hours “for the purpose of exchanging ideas” without prior arrangement.

The policy does guarantee students the right to meet and discuss any issue whatsoever on campus—so long as they reserve the space, pay associated costs, and abide by noise restraints.

Still, ambiguities remain in the policy, which are up to the dean of student affairs to interpret and enforce. “The Vice President for Student Affairs has the responsibility for administering these guidelines,” the policy reads. “Only in extreme cases of violation of these guidelines can the Vice President prohibit speech and expression before it occurs.”


In the past 10 years, the speech and expression policy has only been used to limit speech a handful of times, and it’s been used to discipline students even fewer times. The most recent incident when students potentially violated the policy occurred on Oct. 22, 2012, when an unaffiliated group of students protested the foreign policy presidential debate watch party in Lohrfink auditorium.

The group of “concerned students” passed out pamphlets which included descriptions of the “victims of American imperialism,” quotes from Leftist historian Howard Zinn, and military spending statistics. As the debate started, the protesters turned on a slideshow of American military takeovers of democracies across the world.

An unidentified technology staff member tried to grab the projector from one of the students’ hands. They tussled for a few moments until the projector turned off and the technician left, after which the protesters turned the projector back on. A Department of Public Safety officer also took down the GOCard number of the protester who held the projector, but only his number, not any of the others who shielded him.

The student was brought in for a meeting with Judy Johnson, Director of the Office of Student Conduct, but no disciplinary charges were filed.

The incident highlights one of the ambiguities in the policy: What constitutes disruption of an event? The policy doesn’t specify if holding up signs that don’t obstruct other viewers’ line of sight constitutes a violation of the policy. “An individual or group wishing to protest at an event may do so as long as any speaker’s right to free speech and the audience’s right to see and to hear a speaker are not violated,” the policy reads.

Sydney Browning (COL ’15) was one of the students who stood by the projector. In her judgment, simply displaying another viewpoint on a side wall is protected under the policy. “We didn’t cover up the screen, so we didn’t visually impair the debate,” she said. “We didn’t project sound, so we didn’t speak over the debate, so people could still look at the debate, they could still watch it, they could observe.”

Georgetown Occupy members protesting Paul Ryan’s budget plan in Apr. 26, 2012 also didn’t believe that they were in violation of the speech policy when they silently dropped a critical banner from the Gaston Hall balcony during the House Republican’s address. At that incident, security officers initially tried to take the banner from the protesters, but finally allowed them to retain it. Some of their GOCard numbers were also taken down, but no conduct charges were pressed.

Ultimately, Todd Olson, Vice President for Student Affairs, has the final say. According to Olson, the definition of what counts as disruptive depends on the event, which is why the policy allows for some leeway in interpretation.

“At events, there is and needs to be individual discretion based on the nature of the speech or protest.” Olson wrote in an email to the Voice. “We generally do not allow banners inside events, but also work hard not to escalate situations when they occur.”

This openness to interpretation has led some activists to say that the ambiguity in the policy gives the administration an opening to regulate borderline cases of student protest. “The time, manner, and place provisions in the free-speech policy are very flexible,” said Samuel Geaney-Moore (SFS ’12), an activist who was heavily involved in advocacy for social justice during his four years at Georgetown. “It’s not hard for the University to use that policy to come up with a reason why some particular expression of speech is [against the policy].”

There are other institutions that are charged with interpreting the indeterminate phrasing of the policy. In 1989, the University also created a standing committee composed of students, faculty members, and administrators, charged with advising the vice president for student affairs in administering the policy.

Christopher Mulrooney (COL ’14) was one of the student representatives appointed to the Speech and Expression Committee for the term of GUSA President Clara Gustafson (SFS ’13) and Vice President Vail Kohnert-Yount (SFS ’13), which ended March 16.

According to him, committee meetings are characterized by general discussion until consensus is reached. He also says he was struck by how frequently administrators side with students on issues of free expression. “When it comes to issues like free speech … in my experience, the committee, usually, has almost unanimously decided to let … them express themselves on campus,” he said.

According to Mulrooney, the committee meets “whenever there’s an issue that arises,” which is usually once every three months.

The incident in Lohrfink with the projector, however, was not discussed at any Speech and Expression Committee meeting, despite its being the only high-profile case where students potentially violated the policy in the past school year.

“We do not generally discuss each incident at Speech & Expression Committee meetings,” wrote Olson in an email, for his part. “We tend to discuss principles and a few examples that help to clarify the committee’s views.”

Despite there being either disagreement or misunderstanding among students about how to interpret the policy, the committee did not address the issue. At the same time, Mulrooney notes, students did not approach either Olson or the committee to question whether silently dropping a banner would violate the student code of conduct.

The ambiguity of the speech and expression policy is not the only limiting factor. Activists of all stripes at Georgetown worry that the restriction of free and unplanned protesting to Red Square deprives them of an essential tool for them to get their message out—acting in unexpected ways in order to get their message out.

When asked why she and the other protesters at the presidential debate watch party couldn’t protest elsewhere, Browning responded by saying that protesting in other areas would have degraded the impact of their action.

“We thought that if we protested outside of it, it wouldn’t be as effective. Instead of removing our message from the debate, we wanted to integrate into it,” she said. “It was a spectacle, and so we wanted to combine both the spectacle and the information, and we thought that was the best way.”

In reality, however, most students’ daily interaction with activism comes from walking through Red Square, where various student organizations vie for the attention of passers-by.

“It’s really easy to write off everyone in Red Square. As soon as you limit the free-speech zone into that specific place, it’s like ‘Okay, that’s where everyone gathers,’ so it’s really easy to ignore everyone,” Browning said, “As opposed to when we go directly into an auditorium and project something up onto the wall, it’s not so easy to ignore.”

Geaney-Moore points out that the University policy does not accurately reflect the nature of free speech. “Many students get caught up … in the official forms of speech and dialogue and forget that in practice, in daily experience, free speech is a rough-and-tumble situation.”

Newly-elected President of the Georgetown University Student Association Nate Tisa (SFS ’14) echoed Browning’s sentiments. “Red Square is where every group goes to advertise their wares, and when you go through it, you … put your blinders on,” he said.

One of Tisa’s primary policy goals for his term is to enact a speech policy that is less restrictive and opens up more free speech zones on campus, which he says will help student activism flourish.

“GUSA’s never going to be able to do everything … or advocate for things that are more political in nature,” Tisa said. “In order for the student body to be really active and invigorated here, it needs to be individuals students taking up advocacy on their own.”

Tisa also believes that the registration requirements for other venues where students could protest on campus are too limiting for large-scale demonstrations to occur. “For us it’s not so much what you can do as an individual … but group mentality,” he said. “Where would you go to have a large student demonstration? There just isn’t a space for that.”

Tisa, however, doesn’t think the solution is that simple: “The whole system kind of bureaucratizes the passion students feel.”


The students protesting Petraeus achieved what they had set out to do: In all the post-event coverage, the headlines would no longer read “Petraeus talks military policy in Gaston Hall.” Even though they, as Georgetown students, commanded nothing in terms of money or influence, they drove the discussion following the event. They got their message out.

“The students who spoke up in that event were loud and disruptive, I’m not going to deny that, but they were non-violent,” Geaney-Moore said, “and they were making a political point, and I think it overall improved the discussion at Georgetown.”

Even though the students could have spread their message by traditional means—civil discourse, as Georgetown’s policy defines it, will never completely serve the needs of activists. “By limiting freedom of speech to only discussion and civil discourse, you completely cut out everything else,” Browning said.

“If a student writes an op-ed that goes in the Voice some number of people will read it, but it’s nothing compared to the number of people who will read Thomas Friedman’s column [in the New York Times] … And quiet discussions in classroom settings don’t reach a lot of people, don’t make a lot of noise, don’t really attract attention and make people think,” Geaney-Moore said. “Because of power, some people have amplified voices and some people do not.”

Connor Jones
Connor Jones is the former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Voice. Before that, he edited its blog, Vox Populi and the features section. He was a double major in mathematics and economics and is from Atlanta, Ga. He can be reached at cjones@georgetownvoice.com.


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Shia LeBeouf

This article has changed my life


I’m so glad someone is finally calling attention to this terrible policy. As one of the most politically active universities (thanks, internet!), Georgetown needs to enable all kinds of political speech. I mean without being interrupted and visually assaulted at events, how else will the typical Georgetown student learn about the viewpoints of his/her fellow students? Sans pop-up protests, I’m sure Joe Hoya will just languish in his reactionary acceptance of the status quo. Thank God Occupy is here to inform the uneducated masses of Georgetown university of there errors or their ways.

If only there were another platform for students to reach large audiences…


Thank God for our free speech policy and the university really needs to start considering actual legal action against people who try and hijack events with their antics.