Georgetown Should Honor Its Commitment to Free Speech

The latest conflict between Georgetown's commitment to free speech and its Catholic identity has thrust the university into the news again. Just weeks ago, Representative Paul Ryan's appearance at Georgetown was challenged by critics, and this month's conflict involves Georgetown's invitation to Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to speak at a commencement event on Friday. Critics say that as a Catholic university, Georgetown should not have invited Sebelius, a noted proponent of the recent controversial rule about religious institutions and insurance coverage for contraception. (Indeed, some Catholic colleges are currently suing Sebelius over that recent HHS mandate.)

In a public statement about the controversy this week, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia cited Georgetown's commitment to the free exchange of ideas as a reason to honor Sebelius' invitation:

We are a university, committed to the free exchange of ideas. We are a community that draws inspiration from a religious tradition that provides us with an intellectual, moral, and spiritual foundation. By engaging these values we become the University we are meant to be.

Indeed, Georgetown advertises itself as dedicated to freedom of expression:

[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.

"Free speech" is central to the life of the university. ... The long and short of the matter is that "time, place and manner" are the only norms allowable in governing the expression of ideas and sharing of information that is the very life of the university.

A university is many things but central to its being is discourse, discussion, debate: the untrammeled expression of ideas and information.

This is an unequivocal policy in favor of free speech at Georgetown. As a private Catholic university, Georgetown has the right to clearly state, if it so desires, that it is Catholic and that its Catholic values trump free speech and equal treatment. Yet, Georgetown has generally done the opposite, promising free speech as a core university value.

But why, then, despite its commitment to free expression, has the university refused to provide equal rights to H*yas for Choice, a pro-choice student organization that seeks the same access to university resources (besides the right to use the word "Hoyas" without an asterisk) that other student organizations enjoy? My organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), wrote to Georgetown three times to try to convince it to follow its own promises regarding free speech with regard to H*yas for Choice. Georgetown only responded once, writing that the university valued free speech but could not give equal treatment to a group in conflict with "Catholic moral teaching." When FIRE responded, pointing out that Georgetown's policy specifically says that "'time, place and manner' are the only norms allowable in governing the expression of ideas and sharing of information that is the very life of the university" (emphasis added), this appeal to Georgetown's own stated commitment was met with silence.

So, what does Georgetown really stand for? Rather than keep us all in the dark, Georgetown should finally come clean. Georgetown's continuing attempt to have it both ways when it comes to respecting freedom of expression can only earn it more bad press.