Johns Hopkins Resolves Facebook Case; Becomes FIRE’s First-Ever ‘Censor of the Year’

By January 8, 2007

Today’s press release announces that Johns Hopkins University has reached a final decision in its case against Justin Park, the 18-year-old junior who posted “offensive” party invitations on Facebook.com. Acting on Park’s appeal, Hopkins has decided to amend its initial litany of sanctions, which included suspension for a year, 300 hours of community service, an assignment to read and write papers on 12 books, and diversity counseling.

Park has elected to keep the details of the settlement private, but has told FIRE that he is satisfied with the final decision. While FIRE is pleased to have helped persuade Hopkins to reach a resolution that Park finds satisfactory, we remain troubled by the many illiberal turns this case has taken. Troubled, but not surprised; Hopkins’ reaction to this situation is consistent with its previous actions that punish open expression and chill free speech on campus. Hopkins’ combined acts of censorship throughout 2006 are so egregious that they have earned the university the dubious distinction of being FIRE’s first ever “Censor of the Year” for 2006.

Hopkins’ chilling and downright creepy reaction to Sigma Chi’s “Halloween in the Hood” party started when Park posted the first invitation, on October 26. As Hopkins’ General Counsel Stephen Dunham told us, Greek Life Coordinator Robert Turning told Park to remove the first invitation not because a student complained about it, but of his own accord. Park did as he was told and subsequently posted another invitation, with some of the “offensive” language removed.

It is worth noting that Hopkins has never punished any students for holding the party, and never said that the party could not occur. Nonetheless, Hopkins administrators shut the party down, and within a week, Hopkins President William Brody announced that a new policy would force all students to abide by the university’s vague concept of civility. Within the month, Hopkins would find Park guilty of harassment and intimidation.

On December 11, the state of free speech at Hopkins went from bad to worse, as Brody published an article in The JHU Gazette stating that speech should only be free if it is “substantive and serious.” Brody here clarified that parody, satire, funny anecdotes, crude language, and any other speech that college students, like most members of society, regularly enjoy will not be considered protected speech at Hopkins. With that article, Brody hammered the final nail into the coffin.

Last spring, Hopkins waged a similar battle against speech that would undoubtedly be protected outside of the university’s hallowed halls, when it investigated the staff of the student publication The Carrollton Record (TCR) for harassment. TCR, a conservative publication, published an issue criticizing the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance’s event that featured a pornographic film producer. In addition to investigating TCR’s staff, Hopkins prohibited it from being distributed in dorms and turned a blind eye to the theft of approximately 600 copies of the paper. Under pressure from FIRE, Hopkins dropped the harassment investigation but has still not acknowledged the theft.

Hopkins’ willingness to punish and censor students based on ill-defined standards, its institution of a vague speech code, and President Brody’s statement that free speech will be the exception and not the norm at Hopkins, have inspired FIRE to name Hopkins the first ever “Censor of the Year” for 2006. We hope that Hopkins will redeem itself in 2007, but the pattern thus far doesn’t look too good.

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