FIRE Letter to The Johns Hopkins University Board of Trustees, August 9, 2006

By August 9, 2006

August 9, 2006

Raymond A. Mason
Chairman of the Board of Trustees
The Johns Hopkins University
100 Light Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (410-685-2365)
 
Dear Chairman Mason:

FIRE is disappointed to write to the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) once again to express our concern about the state of liberty on your campus. As you know, FIRE wrote to you on May 19, 2006 to protest the distressing state of free speech and freedom of the press at JHU (letter enclosed). The university’s refusal to recognize the theft of The Carrollton Record (TCR) student newspaper, the newly enforced restriction on newspaper distribution, and JHU’s consideration of a harassment complaint against TCR staff members all demonstrate a disturbing instance of viewpoint discrimination and institutional censorship.

FIRE found JHU Deputy General Counsel Frederick Savage’s May 26 response to our concerns disturbing. Despite his assurances, TCR has indeed been banned from being distributed in JHU dorms while other campus publications, like The Donkey, retain their full distribution rights in those locations. Savage explained that JHU has applied a “Postering policy” to TCR, and that, “although it is not explicitly stated in the policy, by long standing practice the Office of Residential Life has applied the policy to student publications that are left for distribution in student housing.” As we all know, an unwritten policy is no policy at all. The current arrangement, as Savage describes it, gives JHU administrators wide leverage to apply the policy with bias to any publication. If JHU plans to have a policy regulating campus newspaper distribution, the policy needs to be clear and applicable to all, not misleading and subject to viewpoint discrimination.

Savage also claimed in his letter that as TCR “is free of charge and there is no limitation on the number of copies one can take, any charge of theft would be difficult to sustain.” But Maryland Criminal Law Code Ann. §7-106 (2006) (copy enclosed) regarding newspaper theft defines a “newspaper” as simply “a periodical that is distributed on a complimentary or compensatory basis.” Furthermore, the law states explicitly that “a person may not knowingly or willfully obtain or exert control that is unauthorized over newspapers with the intent to prevent another from reading the newspapers.” According to Maryland state law, the disappearance of copies of TCR at least warrants investigation. Administrators at one of America’s top institutions of higher learning have an obligation to ensure that thieves do not stifle speech simply because they disagree with it.

Finally, FIRE remains concerned about the harassment complaints that have been filed with the Office of Equal Opportunity against TCR staff members. As you know, on May 18, TCR editor Jered Ede was called into JHU’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Programs and informed that a harassment complaint had been filed against TCR staff members. The name of the individual who filed the complaint was not released. Savage wrote in a letter to FIRE that “[t]he University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Programs has received a complaint that the TCR’s publication of the cover photo amounted to harassment. In keeping with standard practice, that office is investigating the complaint. I cannot comment on that investigation.”

Savage implied in his letter implied that he considered TCR’s cover photo in its May issue to constitute harassment. He stated,

the photos implied that those photographed endorsed or were in some way involved in pornography and/or sponsored a student event on campus where a pornographic film director spoke; the photos, in connection with the reference to DSAGA, implicitly made a statement about the sexual orientation of the students and/or were intended to harass students on that basis.

TCR staff members were within their rights to print an issue that criticized a pornographic film director’s visit to campus and voiced disagreement with DSAGA, the student group that sponsored the event. True harassment is a serious offense; publishing a newspaper disagreeing with certain students’ opinions is not. For JHU to liken TCR’s actions to harassment trivializes real harassment and makes a mockery of the term.

JHU must understand that the suppression of TCR’s freedom of the press degrades the institution’s commitment to an environment conducive to “the free and open exchange of ideas.” JHU’s actions also send a chilling message to all students that their First Amendment rights are not protected and that they cannot be trusted to decide for themselves which newspapers to read. JHU has charted a dangerous course in choosing to censor controversial works rather than promote an atmosphere where different points of view can be addressed and openly, responsibly discussed.

FIRE believes that the issues presented here are worthy of action by JHU. We urge you to affirm the commitment to free speech and open discussion that JHU claims to value. This coming fall, please grant The Carrollton Record the same rights and privileges that other student publications freely enjoy. Again, FIRE intends to see this matter through to a just and moral conclusion and we are prepared to use all of our resources to support the staff of TCR and their First Amendment rights.

Sincerely,

Greg Lukianoff
President

cc:
C. Michael Armstrong, Board of Trustees, The Johns Hopkins University
George L. Bunting, Jr., Board of Trustees, The Johns Hopkins University
Pamela P. Flaherty, Board of Trustees, The Johns Hopkins University
Richard S. Frary, Board of Trustees, The Johns Hopkins University
William Brody, President, The Johns Hopkins University
Susan Boswell, Dean of Students, The Johns Hopkins University
Ralph Johnson, Assistant Dean of Students, The Johns Hopkins University
Linda Robertson, Vice President for Government, The Community and Public Affairs, Johns Hopkins University
Stephen Dunham, Vice President and General Counsel, The Johns Hopkins University
Shelly Fickau, Residential Life Director, The Johns Hopkins University

Encl.

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Schools: Johns Hopkins University Cases: Johns Hopkins University: Viewpoint Discrimination Against Student Newspaper