Five Georgetown Ethics Profs Scold President For Failing To Uphold Free Speech Policy
Five Georgetown ethics professors have penned an open letter to university president John DeGioia decrying his administration's failure to uphold a school policy that makes freedom of speech paramount over preventing hurt feelings.
McDonough School of Business ethics professors John Hasnas, Jason Brennan, William English, Peter Jaworski and Sahar Akhtar write:
"In our courses, we examine examples of both organizations that act with integrity and honor their commitments even when doing so carries some cost, and those that pay lip service to their commitments but abandon them when they become inconvenient. We write because, in an important respect, Georgetown presently falls into the latter category."
In 2017, spurred on by a presentation to a faculty steering committee by one of the signatories of this week's letter, Georgetown adopted a speech and expression policy that explicitly gave priority to freedom of expression over protecting members of the campus community from being offended.
The ethics professors note that, in its two-year journey to adoption, the policy first garnered the approval of the faculty senate, the Office of Student Affairs, the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action, and university counsel.
In part, Georgetown's speech and expression policy proclaims:
"It is not the proper role of a university to insulate individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Deliberation or debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill conceived."
However, the ethic professors cite several examples illustrating Georgetown's failure to uphold that policy:
In 2017, an undergraduate student group, Love Saxa, was investigated and threatened with being defunded. Campus critics alleged that the group's assertion that marriage should be defined as "a monogamous and permanent union between a man and a woman” fostered "hatred or intolerance of others because of their...sexual preference.” (Lest the irony go undetected, it bears noting that we're talking about a Catholic University.)
In 2019, the acting U.S. secretary of Homeland Security was forced to abandon his delivery of a speech after protestors continuously shouted him down. The professors say insufficient intervention by administrators and campus security officers at the event violated a Georgetown speech policy provision that says protestors "may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe."
In 2021, an adjunct professor was recorded expressing dismay that black students comprised a disproportionate share of the low grades in her class. A fellow adjunct prof listened without disagreeing. The law school dean promptly fired the first professor and put the second on administrative leave, and condemned the "abhorrent" conversation containing "reprehensible statements concerning the evaluation of black students." University president DeGioia publicly endorsed the dean's actions.
In January, Ilya Shapiro, the incoming director of Georgetown Law's Center for the Constitution, criticized President Biden's advance commitment to nominating a black female Supreme Court justice. Shapiro tweeted, "Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan, who is solid prog & v smart. Even has identity politics benefit of being first Asian (Indian) American. But alas doesn’t fit into latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman.” The law school dean condemned the tweet, put Shapiro on administrative leave pending an investigation and barred him from campus for five months. (Shapiro resigned on Monday just days after been reinstated.)
In May, Georgetown distributed a "Campus Climate Newsletter" inviting people to help the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion track down the source of anonymous, "racially insensitive" messages on Flok, a social media app. The ethics professors denounce the invitation for campus community members to inform on others for expressions the university deems "offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill conceived”—expressions that are explicitly protected by university policy.
Throughout the 2,800-word letter, the professors stress that, while the university deliberately adopted a policy that puts free speech first, it continues to emphasize the primacy of eliminating "bias" and promoting a "welcoming" environment—not just by its actions in the above incidents but in its public statements too.
Indeed, in recently reinstating Shapiro, Georgetown Law dean William Treanor referred both to the university's dedication to free speech and what he called an "equally important principle" of building "a culture of equity and inclusion."
Professors Hasnas, Brennan, English, Jaworski and Akhtar say it's incumbent on the university to either:
Enforce the speech and expression policy that was adopted in 2017, or
Change the policy to subordinate free speech and unfettered debate to the promotion of an "inclusive and welcoming educational environment."
Advocating neither option, they conclude:
"One of the most fundamental principles of organizational ethics holds that organizations must honor their freely undertaken commitments. We are duty bound by the nature of our employment to call upon Georgetown University to abide by this principle."
You can read their full letter here.