FIRE Letter to Schaefer Whiteaker, Chief Justice, Student Government Association Judiciary, Johns Hopkins University

By on April 8, 2013

April 8, 2013

Schaefer Whiteaker
Chief Justice, Student Government Association Judiciary
The Johns Hopkins University
3400 North Charles Street
Baltimore, Maryland, 21218

Sent via U.S. Mail and Electronic Mail (swhitea1@jhu.edu)

Dear Mr. Whiteaker:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, academic freedom, due process, freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses. Our website, thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.

FIRE is concerned about the Student Government Association’s (SGA’s) decision to deny prospective student organization Voice for Life (VFL) recognition at The Johns Hopkins University based on VFL’s plans to engage in expression protected by the First Amendment. We hope the SGA Judiciary will correct the SGA’s mistake and give fair consideration to VFL’s bid for recognition.

The following is our understanding of the facts. Please inform us if we are in error.

VFL existed as a recognized organization at Johns Hopkins from 1995 until 2010. The SGA denied VFL re-recognition, however, based on its pro-life message and activities, specifically because 1) the club’s website contained a link to the website of an outside organization known for displaying large, graphic abortion-related images, and 2) the group’s proposed “sidewalk counseling” allegedly conflicted with Johns Hopkins’ policies on harassment. The SGA has been explicit about its viewpoint-based reasons for rejecting VFL. The minutes from the March 12 meeting at which VFL was denied recognition refer to concerns about “making people feel uncomfortable,” and later emails from unidentified SGA officials released by the national organization Students for Life refer to “the right to protect our students from things that are uncomfortable.”

The SGA is now claiming, on appeal, that it is “impossible to explain” how a particular decision regarding recognition was reached, and that it is under no obligation to do so. This argument only makes the situation worse, as it highlights the lack of any clear, definite, viewpoint-neutral criteria by which groups’ applications for recognition are evaluated. For the SGA Judiciary to uphold the SGA’s decision would be an affirmation of censorship at Johns Hopkins and a contradiction of the university’s stated commitment to free inquiry.

Although Johns Hopkins is a private university and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment, it makes explicit promises of free speech to students. Its Undergraduate Student Conduct Code, for example, calls on students “to protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas.” The preamble to Johns Hopkins’ Anti-Harassment Policy additionally states:

The free and open exchange of ideas is fundamental to the University’s purpose. It is not the University’s intent in promulgating this policy to inhibit free speech or the free communication of ideas by members of the academic community.

The SGA’s constitution further states that

Students have a right to free speech in all matters relating to the SGA. The spirit of this sentiment shall be extended to all student activities on the Homewood campus.

The SGA’s determination that VFL’s activities constitute harassment was in error and does not justify its denial of recognition for two main reasons.

First, the link to the allegedly disturbing outside website and the group’s proposed sidewalk counseling constitute protected expression, not harassment. Johns Hopkins defines harassing conduct as conduct “so severe or pervasive that it interferes with an individual’s work or academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working or academic environment”-a standard that is not met by VFL’s advocacy. Johns Hopkins’ Office of Institutional Equity has stated that VFL’s planned sidewalk counseling would constitute protected expression. In an April 3 letter to VFL president Andrew Guernsey, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity Caroline Laguerre-Brown stated her opinion that VFL’s proposed sidewalk counseling activities “would not constitute harassment within the meaning of” Johns Hopkins’ policies. Laguerre-Brown further reaffirmed Johns Hopkins’ free speech commitments, finding VFL’s sidewalk counseling “fully in accord with the university’s robust commitment to the values of free expression and open debate that is articulated in these policies.”

Second, the viewpoint-based rejection of VFL in this case contradicts the principles established by the Supreme Court when it held that public universities are required to grant expressive student organizations recognition and access to the funding of student activities on a viewpoint-neutral basis. See Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 233 (2000) (“When a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others.”). Although the SGA is not legally bound by the First Amendment, it fundamentally abandons Johns Hopkins’ institutional commitment to free speech and undermines First Amendment principles when it acts to stifle speech that it does not like.

There is little doubt that personal preferences are at the heart of this matter. The emails published by Students for Life from unidentified SGA officials reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the legal and moral underpinnings of academic freedom and free expression. One SGA official commented:

I understand people’s right to freedom of speech, but this is a private university, and as such, we have the right to protect our students from things that are uncomfortable. … Why should people have to defend their beliefs on their way to class?

We call on the SGA Judiciary to stand by Johns Hopkins’ statement that “[t]he free and open exchange of ideas is fundamental to the University’s purpose,” and to ensure that the marketplace of ideas is open to student groups of all viewpoints. The SGA claims that it does not have to honor such free speech protections. That the SGA chooses not to be on the side of free expression and full exchange of ideas is a sad development.

FIRE asks that the SGA Judiciary reject the SGA’s viewpoint-based justifications for denying VFL’s recognition and, if it judges VFL’s application to be otherwise satisfactory, to recognize the organization. We also urge the student government to work to clarify its constitution and policies as necessary to ensure that both student organizations and SGA members have a clear understanding of the approval process and its requirements.

We appreciate your sensitivity to these important concerns, and request a response to this letter by April 15, 2013.

Sincerely,

Peter Bonilla
Associate Director, Individual Rights Defense Program

cc:
Moses Song, Executive President, Student Government Association
Alex Schupper, Executive Vice President, Student Government Association
Michael St. Germain, Executive Treasurer, Student Government Association and Chair, Student Activities Commission
Kyra Toomre, Freshman Class Senator
Caroline Laguerre-Brown, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity
Susan Boswell, Dean of Student Life
Ronald J. Daniels, President

Schools: Johns Hopkins University Cases: Johns Hopkins University: Viewpoint-Based Rejection of Pro-Life Group