Student Speech and Expression Forum

McNeir Auditorium
Georgetown Univeristy
February 3, 2003

Let me begin this forum by arguing two different points of view regarding free speech and expression. This tension has shaped our discourse here, and I hope to do it justice.

First: Georgetown should curtail speech because we believe strongly that ideas matter. Ideas are conveyed in speech, and ideas can be very dangerous. They can upset the status quo; they can be disruptive. Ideas can generate negative reactions, carry hate, wound people, and cause real trauma.

Ideas are powerful. College students are at a formative time in their lives; they are easily persuaded; they may not grasp the complexity of some ideas. If you believe in the power of ideas, then you must consider carefully what ideas are promulgated at Georgetown. Specifically, one must consider that a campus committed to unrestricted speech could, on occasion, appear to provide a legitimate platform for lies, hatred, distortion, and error. As a result, offensive speech appears to acquire legitimacy when it occurs on the grounds of a respected research institution or is uttered by members of that community.

Now let’s consider a second viewpoint-that a university should commit itself to free speech and expression.

Universities are predicated on a fundamental trust that permits the broadest possible intellectual freedom and autonomy. Universities are also committed to the idea that the truth is achieved in dialogue. To limit dialogue a priori is to show a lack of confidence in the capacity of the individual to discover truth. The university is a catalyst and container of conflict; and there will be conflict. Active debate and discussion of ideas are, in fact, the signs of a healthy intellectual community.

Two points of view. Both matter. Good arguments can be made for both.

The question of what constitutes the appropriate range of speech and expression raises the most difficult and important issues for the academy. We live this tension as a community. At Georgetown, our decision has been to create a framework that supports open fora and free expression.

This evening, I’d like to talk about why we made the choice to support and protect free and open speech, the pain it sometimes causes, the obligations it places on all of us, and finally, why we believe this approach works best in an academic community.

Georgetown has chosen to permit the widest possible discourse, limited only under certain exceptional circumstances, because we believe in three things: the value of intellectual inquiry, the integrity of individuals, and the ability of members of this university community to think rationally about ideas and work toward truth. We cannot be a university dedicated to intellectual excellence and at the same time place limits on what might be said and thought and discussed.

Our policy on free speech and expression was developed at Georgetown 14 years ago to provide a framework for our common life together. It does not prohibit speech based on the person presenting ideas or the content of those ideas nor does it mandate any mechanism by which the institution decides who gets to speak and who doesn’t. We don’t approve or endorse the speakers that come here. That’s known and widely understood.

At the same time, we understand that free speech will cause pain. Open debate can be difficult and uncomfortable. Our trust will, on occasion, be abused. William Shockley, a Nobel laureate, was invited to speak on many campuses in the 1960s, despite the fact that he used his stature in the scientific world to make outrageous claims about racial inferiority.

There can be a tragic element in any pursuit of truthfulness. We can’t ignore the tragic dimension of our lives, but we truly believe, by permitting the broadest range of discourse– some of it unpopular, some of it disturbing– that truth will emerge.

Our commitment to free speech carries with it the obligation to engage difficult, even offensive, ideas. In the context of that obligation, Georgetown has taken many risks. Many of you know of the tragic murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran priest who received an honorary degree from Georgetown in 1978 for his courageous advocacy for the poor. Two years later, Archbishop Romero was murdered, apparently by paramilitary forces aligned with the Salvadoran government. Some years later, Roberto D’Aubuisson, one who many felt was responsible for that murder, was hosted at Georgetown. His appearance triggered uncomfortable, emotional debate. D’Aubuisson had his say and so did his opponents.

More recently, a controversial author, Norman Finkelstein, was hosted on this campus in November, stirring up hurt feelings and fury. In the tradition of Cardinal Newman, who held that the best response to a controversial speech is more speech, not censorship, those angered by Finkelstein’s presence on campus gathered in Red Square to make their views known.

If you can’t debate controversial ideas here, where can it be done? This is the unique role and responsibility of the academy. It is a role we must play if we are to sustain a civil society. The writer Ron Suskind once told me that the university is the last place where there is still “untitled land” in the public square. Every other piece of ground has been claimed in support of some particular interest.

Our obligation to protect open fora carries a cost that is and will continue to be borne by everyone in this audience– consider the outrage of some Jesuits after D’Aubuisson spoke here; or the outrage of some members of the Jewish community and some supporters of Palestine after certain speakers have spoken here, or the outrage of pro-life supporters after appearances by abortion rights supporters. And many members of this community are outraged when Catholic leaders invited here express support for the death penalty in a way that runs counter to the position of the Church.

In fact, some argue that sustaining an open forum runs conflicts with our Catholic and Jesuit tradition. I disagree for three reasons:

First, Catholicism respects the dignity of the individual learner and places great weight on the power and importance of conscience.

Second, we find in Catholic intellectual tradition numerous examples of Catholic thought leaders exploring controversial ideas and over time coming to discover God’s wisdom more accurately.

And finally, because this is a Catholic institution, we are not neutral in the marketplace of ideas and thus invite speakers whose views we think you ought to consider.

In this role, I invited Avery Cardinal Dulles to campus in November, and this semester invited J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities USA. I felt it was essential for the ideas of Cardinal Dulles and Fr. Hehir to be part of campus discourse. I also invited Michael Walzer to talk about Jewish values and universalism. It is critically important that our community understand Jewish civilization and intellectual life. Dr. Walzer enriched our community immensely.

We will defend the ability of members of this academic community to invite speakers you deem to be important, but I also want you to consider that you also have an obligation to consider the implications of some invitations. This is your community, built and nourished by generations before you, and I ask you to demonstrate respect in the nature of speakers you invite. I also ask you to respect the opinions of those who would disagree with someone you invite and when possible, to structure events to provide an opportunity for dialogue that includes a variety of viewpoints.

When you find it necessary to respond to speech you find offensive or inappropriate, I ask you to respect the principle of the open fora and the needs of others to express ideas. By all means make your views known with counter argument and with dignified protests. By all means, attend the lecture and ask the speaker to defend the views in question. Be thoughtful in how you express yourself. And please do not take it upon yourself to attempt to silence a speaker, to shout someone down, to discard publications, or to destroy signs that announce a speaker’s appearance. Such actions are not in keeping with our tradition and it is not the kind of speech that we protect.

As always in approaching a great and complex idea like free speech and expression, St. Ignatius offers wisdom. In his writings, he calls on us “to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.” What does that mean? Ignatius is asking us to listen thoughtfully, to be charitable in our views, and to recognize that intellectual breakthrough requires our openness to ideas that are unfamiliar.

Finally, why do we believe that a policy of free speech and expression, with its inevitable pain and its attendant obligations, is the right approach? What do we hope will emerge? We would like each person to thoughtfully consider opposing points of view, to dwell in uncertainty and maybe even to be comfortable there. My early studies as an English major lead me down a road with John Keats to a concept called negative capability, a difficult idea perhaps captured best by Walter Jackson Bate in his biography of Keats.

Bate wrote: “In our life of uncertainties, where no one system or formula can explain everything, what is needed is an imaginative openness of mind and a heightened receptivity to reality in its full and diverse concreteness. This however involves negating one’s ego.”

Bruce Springsteen had his own way of saying the same thing: “You’ve got to be able to hold a lot of contradictory ideas in your mind without going nuts. I feel like to do my job right, when I walk out onstage I’ve got to feel like it’s the most important thing in the world. I’ve also got to feel like, well, it’s only rock and roll.”

For myself, I’ve never regretted putting myself in a position where I’ve had to consider another point of view. By listening, you better understand an opposing position or a see weakness in an argument that you may not have understood before. I may not change my position, but I’ve learned something valuable.

At this moment in history, when the nation debates the possibility of war, I would much prefer to be in this community of diverse wisdom, even when there is disagreement and discord– because here young people are challenged to form opinions in matters so important that neutrality is not an option.

I expect we’ll all learn something valuable in this forum. In the important tradition of a free and open exchange, I look forward to the ideas that follow.