- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

College campuses are supposed to be welcoming academic arenas where young people can discuss and argue ideas in a spirit of free and open inquiry.

But after a recent incident, in which Georgetown University safety personnel removed pro-choice protesters from a sidewalk adjoining the campus, student groups there are wondering how free they really are to express ideas.

“In terms of promoting dialogue, the university could do a better job,” said Caleb Younger, a junior and member of the university’s Georgetown Democrats. “There is some aggression toward certain groups, and the university is put into a difficult position.”

The incident helped the D.C.-based Jesuit-run university earn a dubious distinction this week: Georgetown was named one of 2014’s 10 “worst colleges for free speech” by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit that advocates free speech and religious liberty in academic environments.

“Our colleges and universities are supposed to be where students go to debate and explore new ideas,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said in a statement. “But too often on the modern college campus, students and their professors find their voices silenced by administrators who would rather they be absent from the often-contentious marketplace of ideas.”

Patrick Coyle, vice president of the national organization Young Americans for Freedom, said that genuine dialogue is lacking on campuses across the country. He cited an incident at Penn State in which students weren’t allowed to distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution in the Student Center on Constitution Day.

“The problem goes across the country. Universities are afraid of being challenged. Instead of challenging students with another event or speaker, they shut it down with bureaucratic maneuvers and tricks. It all goes back to political correctness. You go to a college to discuss various ideas, and some schools have a problem with that,” Mr. Coyle said.

Georgetown officials restrict certain student activities to “free speech zones,” where spontaneous protest and speech of all kinds are allowed. One zone is popularly known as Red Square, and it sits in the center of campus.

“We believe that our speech and expression policy is very appropriate for our campus community,” said Rachel Pugh, the university’s senior director for strategic communications. “[Our policy] offers students broad freedom of expression in keeping with our mission as a Catholic and Jesuit university.”

The Speech and Expression Committee advises the vice president for student affairs on the university’s speech and expression policy. The panel provides education about the policy and decides whether it needs to be clarified or amended. The committee also reviews complaints, which can be referred to a sanctioning body.

“Enforcement is the problem, not the policy,” said Sam Kleinman, one of the committee’s three student members. “Any nondisruptive speech ought to be allowed anywhere on campus.”

FIRE listed Georgetown University fourth on its annual list, giving the school’s speech code a “red” rating — the most restrictive.

The watchdog group published detailed descriptions of each university and the reasoning behind its rankings, citing at one point a controversy involving the student organization Hoyas For Choice, requesting the club replace the university mascot’s name with “H*ya’s.”

“Given the numerous run-ins between H*yas for Choice and campus security, Georgetown’s designation as one of the top 10 worst campuses for free speech is unsurprising,” said Abby Grace, the pro-choice club’s president. “It is a shame that members of HFC are frequently concerned that our right to freedom and expression will be curtailed by an administration that is often set on serving the needs of its own bureaucracy rather than the students it purports to serve.”

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