Hopkins President Brody: Civility Trumps Free Speech

By December 12, 2006

Johns Hopkins President William R. Brody addresses the university’s extreme treatment of Justin Park in an article called “A Civil Tongue” that appeared in the Johns Hopkins Gazette yesterday. Brody states that expression should garner protection under principles of free speech only if it is “of a substantive and serious nature.” After citing two instances in which the university was wrong to suppress substantive, serious expression—a communist speech in 1940 and a student newspaper story mocking Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s—Brody juxtaposes the current controversy involving Park’s expression.

He writes:

But I think we all know that it stretches our credulity to assert that two crude and tasteless invitations to a fraternity party posted on an Internet Web site rise to this standard of seriousness of purpose or intent. What I see here is not a courageous trespass of taboo speech but rather a fundamental breach of civility of the sort that is so commonly displayed in disparagement, mockery or epithets drawn along racial or ethnic lines. It is, simply put, common name-calling. This is what I believe we should agree is unacceptable in our community of free and open discourse. Let us not forget that true civility is not a program of fair treatment for this or that constituency but rather an underlying and fundamental commitment to showing respect for everybody.

Brody goes on to suggest that we all read Hopkins Professor Pier Massimo Forni’s Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, and quotes from that book that “You don’t pick and choose when it comes to respect.”

But according to Brody, you do pick and choose when it comes to free speech. Absent from Brody’s neo-Victorian emphasis on “common respect,” “decency,” and “good manners” is any discussion of Park’s actual speech. Park’s statements, contained in the October 26 and the October 27 Facebook posts, did not present the obvious breach of objective standards of civility (if any exist) that Brody implies. Yes, Park’s Halloween party invitation may have offended Brody’s presidential sensibilities; I assume my grandmother would also not have cared for Justin’s jokes. But a cursory reading of Park’s posts shows that the force of Brody’s invective and the severity of the university’s sanctions are highly disproportionate to the content of Park’s expression.

In his haste to trumpet the virtue of civility, Brody ignores the fact that his vision of civility does not necessarily match others’ definitions. Brody also ignores the fact that upholding this nebulous doctrine of civility will necessarily entail selective enforcement and viewpoint discrimination—can Brody really ensure that these standards will be applied equally across the board? Does Hopkins plan on hiring a new flank of disciplinarians whose full-time job will be to battle the lack of civility on campus?

Finally, Brody refers us to Choosing Civility, but intends to bring civility to campus by force—through suspension. I admit that I have not read Professor Forni’s book, but with its titular emphasis on choice, I wonder if it seeks to encourage, rather than legislate, civility.

Brody wants to limit the speech that Hopkins protects to that which is “serious” and “substantive,” and thereby rule out satire, jokes, and crude language, all of which he deems useless. From a free speech perspective, satire and jokes are necessary because they often contain kernels of truth, and their censorship leads us down a dangerous path. From a more human perspective, satire, jokes, and even crude language are necessary for the simple fact that they are at times enjoyable.

Brody should rather limit the type of speech that Hopkins will not protect, i.e. that which actually threatens, intimidates, or at least directly attacks other members of the community. Park’s statements did none of the above. The breakdown of order on campus will not come from crude and offensive statements shared among students on the internet; it will come from powerful administrators carrying out their unique vision of “civility” with life-altering punishments.

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