Christian Geoghegan: GW needs more freedom of speech

Next week, the Westboro Baptist Church will bring its hateful idea that God’s eternal benevolence ends with gay individuals, the military, Jews and Obama to GW. Its arrival will not only bring WBC’s trademark derogatory posters, but also the importance of the first amendment, to the forefront of our consciousness. GW as an institution, unfortunately, does not exercise an ideal respect for the first amendment, and this challenges a day-to-day freedom that we take for granted.

The Hatchet reported earlier this semester that GW received a “yellow light” from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, saying that GW has “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.” FIRE points to GW’s policies on flyer postings, free speech zones and overall tolerance as problems.

In 2007, certain anonymous students posted flyers satirizing the conservative student group, Young America’s Foundation. The posters included the phrase “Hate Muslims? So do we!” and were falsely promoting YAF’s “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.” The posters drew obvious criticism from the student body and school officials, and the University removed the posters. But YAF, despite having no connection to the flyers, was forced by school officials to draft a statement condemning hate speech that may or may not occur at its events.

GW’s act of taking down the satirical posters and convincing YAF to write a statement that tries to curb hate speech essentially limits free speech on campus. And as illustrated by GW’s FIRE rating of a “yellow light” years after the flyer incident, a lack of freedom of speech on campus is still a problem that the University needs to address.

As a private institution, GW has the power to limit whatever it deems acceptable to restrict. But limiting freedom for the sake of avoiding potential problems, while protecting certain students, is not only Orwellian, but also detrimental to the student body in general. Through any limitations of speech, GW is ignoring the main function of a university: to prepare its students for independent adult life. By sheltering students, our college is saying that we are too weak to live with freedom. As deplorable as the posters were, they did not need to be banned because they were offensive. They simply needed to be ignored.

We all have a right to be offended, something that is often forgotten. We live in a free society and in a marketplace of ideas. We come together and trade thoughts and points of view, and sometimes these ideas may be offensive. College should be a place where we are as free as possible to try new ideas, discover novel schools of thought and become open to different opinions, no matter how offensive they may be. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall rightly said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Opinions have no reason to be censored because there are few, if any, universally accepted beliefs. Like ethics, viewpoints should be discussed openly and weighed equally. No one person can claim that his or her belief system is wholly unassailable and perfect. It is through complete respect and tolerance that hatred and bigotry can best be combated.

So if you are around something that offends you, get away from it. If you disagree with another person’s point of view, discuss why you believe that person is wrong. Be open to new ideas and listen to those who disagree with you. Every single person deserves the same respect and courtesy, no matter how hateful, ignorant or illogical he or she may be. And let’s hope that GW changes its policies so that the freedom of speech among students is reflected in how our University operates.

-The writer is a freshman majoring in philosophy and economics.

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