Johns Hopkins Pro-Life Group Fights for Recognition, with No Help From its Student Newspaper

By on March 29, 2013

The student government at the Johns Hopkins University has refused to recognize a pro-life student group—but that refusal doesn’t raise "a question of free speech," says the editorial board of The Johns Hopkins News-Letter. By the time you’re finished reading this post, the incorrectness of this statement should be clear. 

Voice for Life (VFL) had been a student organization at Johns Hopkins from 1995 until 2010, and has been seeking re-recognition. The Johns Hopkins Student Activities Commission (SAC) rejected its application on March 12, and the SGA Senate did the same on March 26. VFL has appealed its case to the Student Government Association’s (SGA’s) Judiciary Committee, which will hear its case in early April.

Following the SAC’s denial, VFL pressed members of the SGA (which oversees SAC) to explain its decision. An article in the News-Letter reports what happened next:

After the rejection that the club faced from the SAC on March 12, they returned to the SGA Town Hall meeting the following day to uncover the reasoning behind their decision.

SGA rejected the application due to two issues primarily. It asserted that a link on the club’s website was offensive to some viewers because of the content it contained concerning the issue of abortion, which was not in conformity with University policy, according to [VFL President Andrew] Guernsey. 

Furthermore, SGA deemed one of the club’s proposed activities, sidewalk counseling, to be in conflict with the University’s policies on harassment.

Both of these rationales are highly problematic. Johns Hopkins—despite its dreadful track record—does still promise its students free speech. Its undergraduate student conduct code, for example, highlights Johns Hopkins students’ obligation "to protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas." JHU’s sexual harassment policy (PDF) further states:

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

Links to the websites of outside organizations, including sites with graphic content, on student group websites would certainly be protected by such a commitment. Further, VFL had not had the opportunity to explain what its "sidewalk counseling" entails before it was rejected on the presumption that this speech activity would violate JHU policy. As Guernsey explained to the News-Letter

"In the case of Voice for Life’s involvement in the practice of sidewalk counseling, our members frequently stand on the public sidewalk outside the abortion clinic on N. Calvert Street, and speak to women in a peaceful, non-aggressive manner, hand out literature, provide information about life issues and the abortion clinic itself — in an effort to persuade the individual (it may be the parent, boyfriend or the woman herself) not to have an abortion, and to choose life for the child in the womb," Guernsey wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

This is obviously a sensitive topic of discussion, but it’s protected speech when done in accordance with applicable laws. Further, the facility in question is not part of the Johns Hopkins campus, which should negate any claim the SGA might make to regulate this area. Most students at Johns Hopkins would be surprised, I think, to find that their groups could be rejected because they plan to engage in lawful, off-campus conduct of this kind. Would the SGA be willing to reject, for example, a group whose planned activities included peacefully and lawfully standing outside Chick-fil-A franchises and discouraging people from eating there? 

Nonetheless, the SGA stuck by its position, and it has demanded that sidewalk counseling be struck from the group’s activities.

"The SGA Executive Board found that the proposed group (Voice For Life) intended actions as a club that clearly violates the JHU Harassment and Code of Conduct policies …. We have asked them to resubmit their group proposal without sidewalk counseling. We look forward to reading their updated proposal," Executive Vice President Alex Schupper said.

This is a disappointing misunderstanding of what constitutes true, unprotected harassment, which in the educational setting the Supreme Court has defined as targeted, discriminatory conduct "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit." Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629, 633 (1999). 

The flaws in the News-Letter‘s editorial I quoted at the beginning should now be evident. And yet, the paper fully endorsed the SGA‘s rejection of the VFL. The case is not about free speech, they say, but rather "the fundamental duty of the University to protect its students from undue harassment." Universities, of course, do have an obligation to protect their students from harassment, properly defined. But the editorial board goes much further than that, stating that "[s]tudents at a private university on University-owned grounds should not be forced to view images of fetuses on school property."

Why not? 

This is a remarkable statement. Despite Johns Hopkins’ institutional commitment to free expression, the News-Letter‘s editorial board as much as states that the Johns Hopkins campus should be less free than the world outside its campus gates. It suggests that somehow Johns Hopkins’ students, who attend one of the most intellectually rigorous universities in the country, simply can’t handle the very occasional sight of graphic abortion-related images. Talk about unlearning liberty!  

What other images does the editorial board think Johns Hopkins students can’t handle? Would it approve of a student animal rights group that wanted to display photos on campus depicting animal treatment on factory farms? Would it have supported a feminist group for recognition that wanted to display large pictures of female genitalia to send an empowering message to the community, as a group did recently at the University of Cincinnati

The News-Letter editorial board also suggests recognizing the group would amount to university "sponsorship" of the group’s activities and their viewpoints. This too is wrong. Recognition of student groups confers no "sponsorship" or endorsement of the group’s activities by the university. A search of the directory of student groups at JHU drives the point home. Among other things, it lists chapters of the College Democrats and College Republicans—groups with obviously divergent missions and agendas, both of which obviously aren’t simultaneously endorsed by the university.

The News-Letter editorial also makes this analogy: 

Just as The News-Letter has discretion to deny the publication of articles which some might perceive as offensive, so too does the SGA have discretion to deny groups which will infringe upon the University’s established policies and obligations.

This is comparing apples and oranges. Actually, it’s comparing apples and dump trucks. The News-Letter is an independent publication, with full editorial control over the content it prints. It can reject an article for publication for any reason, including the worry that it might be perceived as offensive. That is not a violation of the writer’s free speech rights. That is the newspaper exercising its free speech rights by deciding what will be published.  

The SGA’s role is nothing like this. Yes, the SGA can reject groups whose missions and activities clearly violate university policy—like a group whose activities obviously run afoul of Johns Hopkins’ alcohol policies. While the News-Letter can make editorial decisions, one of the SGA’s crucial duties is to ensure that the marketplace of ideas at Johns Hopkins is as open as possible. Indeed, this responsibility is reflected in its own constitution, which 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 Homewood campus is Johns Hopkins’ main campus.)

It’s disappointing to see both the SGA and the News-Letter get VFL’s free speech rights so wrong. It’s now left to the SGA Judiciary Committee to do the right thing here and properly recognize the group, using appropriately narrow, content- and viewpoint-neutral criteria to protect VFL’s free speech. FIRE will be watching and will provide Torch readers with updates as they come.

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