At Johns Hopkins, The Slow Slide towards Self-Censorship Continues

By on June 6, 2008

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) student Evan Lazerowitz wrote FIRE last week to inform us of recent developments regarding the state of free speech at JHU. Unfortunately, the news isn’t encouraging.

Lazerowitz, a member of FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, pointed FIRE towards the latest report from JHU’s Commission on Equity, Civility and Respect. The commissionformed by JHU President William Brody in the fall of 2006, partially as a response to the suspension of student Justin Park for posting an "offensive" invitation to a Halloween party on popular social networking site Facebook.comis charged with "developing an action plan to address gender, ethnic and racial diversity issues." The commission is also responsible for formulating "programs, policies and procedures" consistent with JHU’s ill-advised civility code ("Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect for All"), which FIRE named our Speech Code of the Month for December 2006.

Any determination the commission makes regarding free speech at Hopkins, therefore, is of definite interest. That’s why the commission’s latest report is so disheartening. Issued as a response to open forums held on campus regarding possible changes to Hopkins policies, the commission lists seven goals that their final recommendations to the Provost will accomplish. These goals include "acknowledg[ing] many of the efforts that have been made toward increasing diversity as well as equity, civility, and respect over many years in the history of this Institution" and "[d]efin[ing] as clearly as possible equity, civility, and respect as well as diversity."

Way down at number five, the commission lists "acknowledg[ing] the need to maintain the right to freedom of speech as we pursue the Commission’s goals." Somehow, they sound less than enthusiastic; indeed, the core importance of free speech at Hopkins seems like an afterthought to the commission. That’s unfortunate, to say the least, and reinforces FIRE’s classification of Hopkins as one of just five schools on our "Red Alert" list. It’s as if the commission just doesn’t realize the basic incompatibility of free speech and a vague, overbroad speech code. (Not that FIRE hasn’t tried repeatedly to explain it to them.)

As former FIRE intern and JHU student Christine McCurdy wrote in The Johns Hopkins News-Letter student newspaper this spring:

It is imperative that the administration make a concerted effort to assure students that their right to free expression is cherished on campus. But before it can do this, the administration must publicly reaffirm its dedication to the ideals of free speech and discoverythe values upon which Hopkins was established in 1876. The civility code must be repealed. It is not conducive to the very nature and mission of a research institution.

We couldn’t agree more. The civility code is simply inappropriate for a modern liberal university like JHU, and no amount of deliberating by the commission will make it any less so. JHU should save itself a lot of time and effort by repealing the civility code today.