A Free Speech Win at George Washington University

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Over the weekend, the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education jumped on a story out of George Washington University. Someone had posted on campus an Olympic themed poster highlighting the Chinese government’s human rights abuses. Some students denounced the poster as offensive and beyond the bounds of tolerable free speech. A Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement administrator jumped into action. The president of the university pledged to find the perpetrators of this “terrible event.” FIRE quite correctly called this out.

Today cooler heads prevailed. I have noted before that I believe in positive reinforcement even when university leaders have behaved illiberally in the past. President Mark Wrighton issued a new statement admitting error and reaffirming GWU’s commitment to free speech on campus.

It is an impressive statement. It is never easy to admit mistakes, and university leaders are rarely so clear in reversing course as Wright is here. He deserved a lot of blame over the weekend, but he deserves praise now.

Dear Members of the George Washington University Community,

Last week, the university learned of posters on campus depicting images that alarmed some members of our community, and we began to receive a number of concerns through official university reporting channels that cited bias and racism against the Chinese community. I also received an email directly from a student who expressed concerns.

At that time, and without more context on the origin or intent of the posters, I responded hastily to the student, writing that I, too, was concerned. University staff also responded to ensure the posters were removed. These responses were mistakes. Every member of the GW community should feel welcome and supported, but I should have taken more time to understand the entire situation before commenting.

I have since learned from our university’s scholars that the posters were designed by a Chinese-Australian artist, Badiucao, and they are a critique of China’s policies. Upon full understanding, I do not view these posters as racist; they are political statements. There is no university investigation underway, and the university will not take any action against the students who displayed the posters.

I want to be very clear: I support freedom of speech—even when it offends people—and creative art is a valued way to communicate on important societal issues. I also support the many students and faculty at our university who are engaged in researching, and actively advocating against, all forms of discrimination, marginalization, and oppression.

Our university’s scholarship, research, and support for those among us who need it most are the reasons that this great institution has fulfilled its mission for more than 200 years. As we embark on our third century, I am committed to upholding our mission and ensuring our community has the support to continue this critical work.

Sincerely yours,

Mark S. Wrighton

President

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