A new approach to making decisions about free speech on campus, from Georgetown's president

"Imagine four quadrants on a grid," says DeGioia

Caroline Hopkins, Staff WriterCaroline Hopkins, Staff Writer

In 2003, John J. DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University, announced to faculty, staff, administrators, and students:

"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."

But he also told his audience:

"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."

The challenge during times of conflict is to find the sweet spot between the two points of view, he announced.

Fast forward a decade and a half. The free speech debate on college campuses has intensified—and is all the more relevant than it was when DeGioia first made the remarks. A highly contentious political landscape has launched violent protests, comprehensive research projects, strong words of warning from the Education Secretary—and widespread criticism.

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That's why last Tuesday, The Atlantic invited DeGioia to come speak with Steve Clemons, the magazine's Washington Editor at Large about what it means to ensure freedom of speech on college campuses while providing an inclusive academic environment for all members of the community.

Clemons asked DeGioia to share his experience as the president of a school that has long been at the epicenter of the free speech debate, and to advise fellow college leaders: How can administrators protect voices from all sides of the debate?

DeGioia told Clemons that Georgetown's official stance is to permit anyone in the Georgetown community to invite anyone to speak. But in cases where the speaker is particularly controversial, DeGioia said, "we may do other things, provide other kinds of programming to ensure that a full range of perspectives are heard."

These "other things," DeGioia explained, fall into three categories:

  1. Taking the proper precautions to ensure campus safety and security;
  2. Encouraging speech from the other side of the issue at hand, so as to balance out perspectives; and
  3. Clearly distinguishing between free speech and harassment.

The steps for the first two are fairly straightforward: The university seeks to ensure safety by setting a response team in place before a controversial speaker arrives, while officials aim to present a balance of perspectives by diversifying the faculty and encouraging opposing points of view in the classroom.

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But drawing a clear line between free speech and harassment is where it gets complicated. DeGioia uses a visual aid to explain.

"Imagine four quadrants in a grid," DeGioia told Tuesday's audience.

In DeGioia's grid, the horizontal axis is speech—at one end, it's limited, at the other end, it's expansive. The vertical axis, he told his audience, represents harassment. DeGioia added that you could also label the vertical axis as hate speech.

"That [harassment] dimension is what's often at stake... in the higher ed context," DeGioia explained. On the harassment axis, the bottom point is the type of speech meant to harm or harass, and the top represents speech that is productive.

DeGioia then described grid areas on which certain institutions might fall. For instance, most large public universities end up landing somewhere in the bottom-right quadrant of the grid, where no speech—including highly offensive speech—can be limited, since they're required by law to uphold the first amendment. In the top-left quadrant, he said, might lie smaller, private liberal arts institutions that believe that "there is no place to tolerate the intolerant."

DeGioia argued that institutions should strive to fall within the top right quadrant, he explained, "where they're trying to get the right balance—trying to be respectful to the diversity of their community, and trying to be respectful to the law."

The free speech debate is always going to be a grey area, as institutions struggle to define when it's appropriate to step in and intervene without threatening first-amendment freedom.

Prior to attending Tuesday's conversation, I viewed free speech along a single axis—limited vs. free speech—on which, unfortunately, offensive or intolerable speech could crop up.

But to view the issue on an axis is to clarify that the continuum of free speech and hate speech are two separate dimensions, something that often gets overlooked in contemporary discussions about the issue.

Adopting the grid view can help administrators make decisions under stress. First determine where on the grid you want your institution to fall.

Then, for each event—be it a student protest opposing a speaker, a racist chalk message, or otherwise—and ask yourself where that event falls the grid. If it's in the same quadrant as your institution, great. But if it isn't, then you may want to consider taking action that brings the event back into alignment with your institution's stance on free speech.

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