Georgetown Promotes Free Speech, but Students Don’t Feel It
Many Americans believe colleges and universities are failing to defend free speech and open inquiry on campus, as videos of student mobs shouting down speakers and undergraduates shrieking at their professors have helped to undermine popular faith in institutions of higher education.
Those viral moments, however, fail to capture the state of free expression on campus in its full nuance and complexity. To provide a more detailed look at the state of speech at American colleges and universities, RealClearEducation collaborated with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the survey-research group College Pulse on the 2020 College Free Speech Survey.
Nearly 20,000 undergraduates at 55 major American colleges and universities participated in the survey. Students were asked a series of questions, meant to gauge their own commitment to free speech and their perception of their peers’ tolerance for diverse points of view. Institutions were ranked according to student sentiment on free expression.
The results were dispiriting. As RealClearEducation’s Nathan Harden highlighted on Tuesday, nearly “20% of students say that using violence to stop an unwanted speech or event is in some cases acceptable,” and some 60 percent of the undergraduates surveyed “say they have kept quiet due to fear of how others would respond.”
One university in particular stands out for the discrepancy between its official posture on free speech and the views of its students on the state of speech on campus. Georgetown University, which hosts the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University and is apparently committed to promoting free expression, struggled mightily in the 2020 College Free Speech Rankings, ranking 48th out of the 55 colleges and universities included.
A granular look at the data from Georgetown is startling. Forty percent of Georgetown undergraduates surveyed were not confident that the administration would support an embattled speaker in a free-speech controversy. Sixty-eight percent of students felt that it might be acceptable to shout down a speaker on campus, while 17% felt it could be acceptable in some cases to use violence to stop a speech on campus. This atmosphere of intolerance extends to the classroom, many students said. When asked to share a moment where the student felt unable to express an opinion on campus, one Georgetown student wrote, “In almost every class, I feel like I [cannot] express my opinions.”
Georgetown’s code of conduct contains regulations that have the effect of stifling speech and negatively affecting the school’s overall score. For example, “incivility”– defined as any language that “disrespects another individual” – is forbidden at Georgetown, and “uncivil” students could face disciplinary actions for their remarks. This creates a potential chilling effect on speech, and “disrespect” can, of course, have an expansive definition in the hair-trigger world of undergraduate education.
Dr. Joshua Mitchell, who teaches political theory in Georgetown’s Government department, is not surprised that many students are uncomfortable expressing themselves candidly in class. “I’ll teach something in class that questions a politically correct position on a particular issue, and when I do, I’ll get crickets. No one will speak up and say anything. Then, students will come to office hours and say, ‘I agree with you, but I could never say it publicly.’”
“It is a complicated picture,” Mitchell said. “It’s not as though faculty and administration at Georgetown are actively suppressing conservative speech – it’s subtler than that, for the most part. When there is an opportunity to replace a conservative faculty member, for example, the faculty will decide that they’re not going to replace him. There is a quiet agreement not to reach out to people on the other side.” When the faculty is almost exclusively comprised of professors with one worldview, Mitchell said, students who disagree with the prevailing views of the faculty are less likely to speak up.
A Georgetown University spokesperson responded to a request for comment by noting that the university “is committed to the free and open exchanges of ideas, even if those ideas may be found difficult or objectionable by some.” The spokesperson said that Georgetown’s “long-standing Speech and Expression policy has guided our approach to speech while maintaining the fundamental right of members of our community to free expression, dialogue and academic inquiry. We respect members of our community’s right to express personal views and are committed to maintaining the values of academic freedom and serving as a forum for the free exchange of ideas, even when those ideas may be controversial and objectionable to some."
While the university reaffirmed its commitment to free expression, Dr. Mitchell laments that many students “don’t see many alternatives” to the “hegemony of identity politics.” He thinks that the identitarian focus of many administrators is fostering an arid, “choreographed” conversation about difficult political issues on campus. Mitchell is hopeful, however, that things will improve. “There has been a subtle turn in the student body. There is a generational shift,” he said. “Many of the younger students at Georgetown know that the account identity politics gives is not adequate, and that you cannot build a society around it.”