Free speech and punishment at Hopkins

December 1, 2006

Johns Hopkins University students are protesting once again about Justin Park — but this time it’s on his behalf. Park was the Hopkins junior who posted Facebook invitations to Sigma Chi’s “Halloween in the Hood” party, which prompted protests from black students who accused him and the fraternity of racial insensitivity. Last week, the university’s Student Conduct Board suspended him until the spring of 2008, drawing criticism that the punishment was excessive and that Hopkins may be ignoring its student policy designed to “protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas.”

Park is still attending classes and is appealing the decision today; Hopkins officials said they could not comment on either the disciplinary action or the appeal. Park was also ordered to complete 300 hours of community service, read 12 books and complete a reflection paper for each, and attend a workshop on diversity and race relations.

“I don’t think anyone was expecting something this drastic,” said Lars Trautman, a junior and Sigma Chi fraternity member. Hopkins has barred the fraternity from hosting social events until January 2008 for its role in publicizing and hosting the party. Trautman said that the fraternity expelled Park partly because some members agreed that the posting was insensitive, but also because its members wanted to quell the controversy. “We thought maybe a semester suspension. But when they came back with three, we were just shocked.” Trautman has argued that the language Park used in the invitation can be heard on any number of television or radio stations.

To support his friend, Trautman created a Facebook group, “We Support Student Rights (JHU Doesn’t).” Other students started a Web site. Trautman said that the Facebook group has more than 600 members, with the majority stating that the punishment was harsh and excessive. A minority are concerned about censorship of speech.

Free speech advocates are also rallying around Park. “If Johns Hopkins was a public university, what they did to him would be illegal,” said Samantha Harris, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE sent a letter to Hopkins supporting Park’s right to free speech and questioning the university’s actions in light of its stated policy protecting free expression.

“The crucial issue is that this student gets his life back and that his academic career not be ruined over a joke that some people found offensive,” Harris said.

Shortly after the incident, Hopkins released a civility policy, passages of which also upset FIRE. “If JHU were a public university, its requirement of civility and its ban on ‘rude’ and ‘disrespectful’ behavior would be laughably unconstitutional,” FIRE wrote in the letter.

The Black Student Union had met with Park after the Halloween party and later held multiple protests over the issue. Its members were angry about both the invitations that Park had written and the general theme of the party. Leaders from the group did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Dennis O’Shea, a Hopkins spokesman, said that he could not comment on the Park case, and added that the university has had a longstanding policy against harassment. The new statement on civility coincided with the release of a Johns Hopkins report on the status of women at the university and had nothing to do with the Sigma Chi incident, he said. A committee has been selected to carry out the new policy, and O’Shea acknowledged that its members will have to address the dilemma of protecting students against harassment while not squelching free expression.

“There is a difference between expression of opinion and harassment,” he said.

Download file "Free speech and punishment at Hopkins"

Schools: Johns Hopkins University Cases: Johns Hopkins University: Student Punished for Party Invitation