On March 18, GU Fossil Free (GUFF) walked on stage during World Bank President Jim Yong Kim’s speech about climate change at Gaston Hall to promote their campaign for the university to divest from fossil fuel companies. In Tuesday’s issue of The Hoya, their Editorial Board condemned members of GUFF for their decision to disrupt the speech. They urged GUFF to acknowledge the special status of Gaston Hall as a “respected space” and “to change their methods of advocacy and better create a space for real dialogue.” Comments on The Hoya’s website also criticized the “disgraceful” action that “embarrassed the university.” The Voice’s Editorial Board finds the Georgetown community’s response to GUFF’s action disappointing.
Students have misrepresented GUFF’s actions on stage during the March 18 event. The Hoya’s editorial, for example, chastises the group for “storm[ing] the stage” and “[demonstrating] an unfortunate misappropriation of values and a disrespect.” This is a sensationalized and inaccurate account of what happened. On its website, GUFF described its action as a “banner drop,” and videos of the event show that they did exactly that. They silently unfurled their banner containing the central tenet of their activism. At no point did GUFF interrupt Kim, injure speakers or audience members, knock over audiovisual equipment, or commit any acts of violence. Neither Kim nor the audience made much of a response to GUFF’s respectful exercise of their free speech.
In fact, the disruption GUFF allegedly brought to Kim’s event pales in comparison by far to what happened when General David Petraeus came to Gaston Hall in Jan. 2010, when multiple students rose from their seats during his speech and yelled aloud the names of Iraqi civilians who had died during U.S. actions in Iraq, cutting off whatever Petraeus tried to say.
Gaston Hall is a special space on Georgetown’s campus, but that alone is not a constructive reason to silence activism at this university. It’s no wonder the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education decided to rank this institution as one of the nation’s worst campuses for free speech in 2014.
Activists rely on disruption and civil disobedience to get their messages across; in return, they choose to accept the repercussions, legal or otherwise, of their actions, regardless of whether they believe such repercussions are just. During the March 18 event, GUFF members and Kim engaged in a mutually respectful dialogue about divestment. By the measure of how one conducts civil disobedience, their actions were a success.
By failing to comprehend that GUFF was trying to go beyond the avenues of civil discourse, responses to GUFF’s actions have thus far been condescending and unproductive. Whether one agrees with their ideologies, the Georgetown community should protect free speech without exception.