World events, the First Amendment, and George Mason University


Dear Fellow Patriots: 
In the days since the terrorist attacks on Israel we have been a nation and a community in shock and mourning. Many of us have also been in the throes of the quintessentially American act of speaking out. Indeed, as the regions of Israel and Gaza prepare to enter a period of prolonged conflict, our society will follow along with many passionate demonstrations, speeches, and protests advocating for both sides of the conflict, testing our tolerance of the very free speech rights that help to define us as Americans. 
Over the past week, George Mason University has seen a number of public gatherings by interest groups related to the Israel-Gaza conflict. Some were discreet, while one in particular was quite visible, in the middle of the Fairfax Campus, in the middle of a day of classes. The messages expressed by all were heartening to supporters, maddening to detractors. We have fielded complaints from all sides, demanding that we bar those with views they oppose from expressing themselves on campus.  
For every advocate who has called on Mason to muzzle those with opposing views, know that we have also received demands to muzzle your views. We simply cannot do any of that without running afoul of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, to say nothing of failing you in our guarantee as a marketplace of ideas. The reality is the First Amendment primarily protects speech that we do not like, and even abhor. It can be hateful and demeaning. In fact, one price of free speech is hate speech. Given this reality, it is possible to accomplish multiple things simultaneously that many find unsatisfying: We condemn the craven acts of terrorism by Hamas on innocent Israelis, while acknowledging the plight of the people of Palestine to seek self-government, and the deaths of innocent Palestinians last week. 
In the days and weeks to come, there will be more conflict. There will be more demonstrations on our campuses. There will be more pronouncements that some will cheer and others try to shout down. That is guaranteed by human nature and the American system of free expression. 
In that light, what is the commitment of George Mason University, both to this university, and to the community and Commonwealth we serve? We commit our fidelity to our principles, including:

  1. Safety – The safety of everyone at George Mason University’s campuses is paramount, and while measures to assure our collective security are intentionally silent and invisible, they are nonetheless substantial and in place around the clock, with close coordination between university offices that come together to form a 360-degree university view and a holistic approach to our institutional response. Our aim with First Amendment gatherings is to maintain a safe environment at all times, and to stay out of the way for as long as safe and lawful conditions remain. Just because you don’t see all of the precautions that precede and support a public demonstration does not mean they are not functioning out of sight. 
  2. Lawfulness – Demonstrations represent a long-held American tradition, but actions by demonstrators must remain lawful if they are to enjoy legal and constitutional protection. We do not and will not permit unlawful conduct, even during moments of protest. Just so, it is not lawful for the university to curtail constitutionally protected speech, no matter how outrageous or objectionable others may find it. That includes the right of the street evangelist to shout condemnations into a megaphone to students on Wilkins Plaza for their sexual orientation or gender identity. It includes advocates for both the preservation and the repeal of abortion laws who protest each other at full volume. And it includes all perspectives in the Israel-Gaza debate. In the marketplace of ideas on a public university campus, even hate speech is protected speech. 
  3. Freedom and Learning – This is our institutional motto, and it proves itself indispensable in moments like this. Along with freedom of speech comes the commitment to learning what is happening, why, and what it might lead to. This critical sense-making is the vital role that our faculty play in educating Mason students, and by extension the university community. In the weeks and months ahead, I look forward to shining a spotlight on their contributions to help us all find a way through and beyond this discouraging moment.  

Moments like this have the possibility of pulling communities like ours apart, but only if we let them. My hope and optimism lie in our ability to use this as a moment to stay together despite the voices and agendas that seek to pull us into oppositional factions. Ultimately, we can grow stronger together through the experience. 
Whether it is your style to pray, meditate, or simply think good thoughts – I invite you to do so on behalf of innocent people in harm’s way in Israel and Gaza, as the world waits with dread and resolution to see what happens next. Surely this is something we can all agree upon. 
Gregory Washington