On March 18, three GU Fossil Free members peacefully demonstrated on the Gaston Hall stage. Upon the conclusion of Dr. Jim Yong Kim’s address, they climbed up to the stage and held a banner quoting a statement he had previously made about climate change. These three members were physically escorted off of the stage and out of Gaston Hall by several GUPD officers and Judy D. Johnson, Director of Student Conduct. The three GU Fossil Free members are now facing two charges under the provisions of the Code of Student Conduct, whose validity is dubious at best in regards to University policy. Moreover, if pressed, the charges threaten to set an alarming precedent of restricting the free speech of members of the Georgetown University community. Below is the official opinion we have submitted to Ms. Johnson in response to these charges.
29 March 2015
We, Elaine Colligan (SFS ‘15), Patricia Cipollitti (SFS ‘15), and Chloe Lazarus (COL ‘16), submit the following statement for review regarding the proposed charges filed by the Director of Student Conduct, Judy D. Johnson. These are: (1) Unauthorized Access; and (2) Failure to Comply with University Official or Law Enforcement Officer.
FIRST: Our act of peaceful protest, silently holding a banner on the Gaston Hall stage on March 18th, did not violate any University policy regarding unauthorized access to restricted spaces. There are no official stipulations that prohibit members of the University community from entering this space, nor can it be reasonably inferred that access is prohibited or restricted: the intent of unauthorized access, as is stated in the Code of Student Conduct, is to protect spaces vital to the day-to-day functioning of the University such as electrical closets and construction zones. The stage of Gaston Hall is not such a space. Instead, it is a community platform integral to the free interchange of ideas, including those of students. It is clear to us that the charges that have been levied against us are grounded in concern over respectability rather than violation of statute, and we believe it groundless to conflate these two.
By arguing that the stage was restricted on the basis of the level of disruption that we created, the University administration has necessarily invoked our rights to express our views, not the danger that we posed to ourselves or others by accessing this space. Therefore, the question raised by our actions is whether University policies allow speech and expression on the stage, a question governed not by Code of Conduct, but rather the Speech and Expression Policy. Based on our reading of the Policy, we are convinced that our rights to protest on the Gaston Hall stage were, and continue to be, protected by University policy.
The Speech and Expression Policy of Georgetown University states, “Expressive activities planned and executed with the intention of protesting an event, policy or other concept can take place in all campus locations, regardless of whether the space has been reserved for that purpose, as long as the actions do not violate other University policies, disrupt University business, or curtail the free speech rights of others” (Section II, part E; emphasis ours). We do not believe that our action disrupted University business. We did not obstruct the view of any speakers, nor did we impede the ability of any speakers to express themselves. In addition, we did not pose any danger to anyone at the event. We seriously consulted this Policy, and other University policies, before our action, and we remain staunch in our belief that our actions were protected by the Speech and Expression Policy.
SECOND: The subsequent charge, Failure to Comply with University Officials or Law Enforcement Officer, is null and void in light of the invalidity of the first charge. University officials only have the right to ask students to move out of spaces if access to these has been previously deemed “restricted.” As the Gaston Hall stage is not one of these spaces, University officials–including both GUPD officers and the Director of Student Conduct–did not have the authority to ask us to move from our place of peaceful protest. Furthermore, given GUPD’s history of poor enforcement of free speech policies (see Speech & Expression Committee opinions), we were understandably hesitant to comply with GUPD’s orders. Most importantly, we believe we did not have any obligation to comply if we were being asked to do something that is not prohibited within the scope of University policy.
As has been demonstrated, the charges levied against us are unreasonable and decidedly without grounding. Furthermore, they are insidious. They undermine the twin aims of Georgetown as a university: the pursuit of the common good and the free exchange of ideas. Regarding the first of these: as members of GU Fossil Free, we have been urging the University for nearly three years to align its investment practices with the moral commitments our Jesuit institution claims to uphold. The University has so far failed to do so. Our act of protest served to further our campaign’s goal to rid Georgetown’s endowment of investments that contravene our responsibilities to the world’s most vulnerable and to future generations. Regarding the second aim: we contend that our removal from the Gaston Hall stage made it “impossible for [us] to speak or be heard or seen” (Preamble, 6) and obstructed the free exchange of ideas. As such, our removal and these subsequent charges constitute “an attack on the core principles the University lives by and may not be tolerated” (Preamble, 6). The purpose of the Code of Student Conduct is to protect students and make Georgetown an inviting place to learn, and it cannot and should not be leveraged to infringe upon rights explicitly granted to students by official University policy. As students who stand by the merit of our contribution to the intellectual and moral life of this university, we cannot tolerate this alarming indifference to our right to express our concerns.