Discourse in a University Community

October 5, 2018

Dear Members of the Georgetown University Community:

As a University, our academic community is predicated on protecting the free expression of ideas and the integrity and safety of the learning environment for our students.  Universities are forums for dialogue—we seek to uphold a model of discourse that encourages a respectful exchange of ideas and a greater understanding of our world and one another.  This is the model that a University is intended to set for society. 

In this moment, such a model of discourse has never been more important.  Members of our community are free to express their views.  New modes of communication have expanded the ways in which expression can take place—and have created new demands on us in sustaining a robust and civil dialogue that promotes empathy and dignity.  We all have a responsibility in fostering a community that advances these values.  

The speech and expression of any member of our community does not imply the endorsement of the University.  While we will protect speech, there are moments which require we condemn speech that is inconsistent with the values on which the very idea of the university is built. 

This is one such moment.

I condemn speech that uses violent imagery, profanity, and insensitive labeling of people. At the same time, I am responsible for protecting speech and expression for the members of our community, especially when that speech is unpopular.  Holding these two convictions—both condemning and protecting speech—can seem to be contradictory.  In a University community, we seek to reconcile this conflict.  We recognize that we expect more of ourselves than protecting free speech: we recognize the concomitant need to respond and address concerns that may arise in our community through the exercise of speech. 

On previous occasions, when our University has been confronted with moments characterized by incivility and coarse discourse, I have written to you seeking to reinforce the values that enable a University to fulfill our role in society.  On occasion, the presence of a controversial speaker on campus or other external forces have contributed to a coarsening of our public discourse.  In each case, I have emphasized the importance of embracing the spirit captured in the tradition that has animated our community since our founding—if we assume the very best in one another, we will find the very best in ourselves. 

Our commitments to freedom of speech and expression and our commitment to academic freedom provide a context that enables us to fulfill our mission.  This spirit of freedom enables the work of an academic community.  Our policies to protect these commitments—developed through a process of shared governance—provide a framework for the expectations we have of each member of our community and our responsibilities to one another in our various roles. 

Our community sustains a commitment to speech and expression that does not limit speech—either on the content of the view or the person expressing the view—except in extremely limited circumstances as described in our Speech and Expression Policy.  If private comments made by faculty members are determined to substantially affect their teaching, research, or University service, we will address them through established University procedures outlined in our Georgetown University Faculty Handbook.

Universities have a distinctive role to play in our society.  Debased, coarse, and vitriolic speech undermines the foundation that enables the work of the University—the disinterested pursuit of truth.  As an academic community, we are at our best when we act in the spirit of seeking the best in one another.  This requires a commitment to our core values of respecting the inherent dignity of one another and a commitment to civility in our interactions with one another.  Honoring these core values is a necessary condition to perform our role in society and sustain our community.

Sincerely,

John J. DeGioia