SULGRAVE, England – University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg discussed the importance of freedom of speech Saturday at Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of George Washington, to a group of British intellectuals and GW alumni.
Trachtenberg’s visit to England was part of a multinational tour to bid farewell to GW alumni and other friends of the University across the globe before he leaves his post in July after serving as president for 19 years. Dozens gathered in a historic room of the English manor to listen to his lecture, which was filled with Trachtenberg’s signature comedic anecdotes and colloquialisms.
“Rights are not absolute, and not absolutely right,” he said, referring to the rights given to every American in the Constitution while commenting on the difference between free speech and libel.
As an example, he referred to American pop-culture icon Paris Hilton as a “public slut.” After the audience stopped laughing, he quickly clarified that he had not committed a libelous act because she was a public figure. In the American legal system, celebrities like Hilton have a higher burden to prove libel.
Americans’ view of freedom of expression, Trachtenberg argued, is something that our founders could never have imagined. “It was an idea born in the 19th century that blossomed in the 20th,” he said.
In response to one audience member’s question about D.C. students’ reaction to current events, Trachtenberg said he was “disappointed” by the silence of many GW students on matters of U.S. foreign policy, specifically the country’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“One would think that people in their 20s would be more concerned about their peers going to Iraq,” he said. “However, one reason could be that there’s no longer a draft (like in the Vietnam War).”
He also said that there was a socioeconomic factor, where many poorer youths enlisted to fight in Vietnam while the richer ones were attending universities – an element separating the Iraq War from Vietnam.
On the subject of students’ freedom of expression, Trachtenberg mentioned the importance of symbolic speech expressed by students during the Vietnam War. It was the burning of draft cards and wearing black armbands to class that, he said, helped push the anti-war movement.
“I would like to see more discussion of what’s going on (in the world) on campus by students,” he said.
Trachtenberg didn’t hesitate to tout the progress he has made at GW during his near-two-decade-long tenure. He touched on the new classrooms, residence halls and sports complexes; the hiring of new professors; the dynamics of the fixed-tuition plan; and the more than $115,000,000 in financial aid given out to deserving students this academic year.
Trachtenberg said he was honored to deliver the Sir George Watson Chair lecture at Sulgrave Manor, located an hour and a half northwest of London. The lecture series started in 1921 to promote “better knowledge and understanding of Anglo-American relations.” Past lecture series have featured other distinguished Americans and Britons, including politicians, university presidents and professors.
Following the lecture, guests were invited to sip champagne and mingle with the Brooklyn, N.Y., native before proceeding to a sit-down dinner in his honor.
Trachtenberg presented the manor with a bronze bust of George Washington as a gift from the University. GW has given sculptures of the first U.S. president to other institutions like George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Northern Virginia, the Masonic Temple in D.C. and the USS George Washington aircraft carrier.
Although the statue given to the manor is of George Washington’s head, New York City police do not suspect the University president of theft. Within days of Trachtenberg’s departure for England, vandals beheaded a George Washington statue at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. The Associated Press reported last week that the culprits left a dollar bill in the place of the general’s head.