Johns Hopkins Reverses Decision, Recognizes Pro-Life Group

By on April 10, 2013

As recounted in today’s press release, the Johns Hopkins University student government’s judiciary committee has unanimously reversed the decision of the university’s student senate to deny recognition to the prospective student group Voice for Life (VFL) on the basis of the group’s expression. FIRE has previously covered this case on The Torch, and wrote to the Student Government Association (SGA) Judiciary Committee on Monday urging this outcome in advance of VFL’s Tuesday afternoon hearing.

As we summarized in the letter (links below have been added), the SGA denied VFL recognition based on two improper factors related to VFL’s expression:

The SGA denied VFL re-recognition, however, based on its pro-life message and activities, specifically because 1) the club’s website contained a link to the website of an outside organization known for displaying large, graphic abortion-related images, and 2) the group’s proposed "sidewalk counseling" allegedly conflicted with Johns Hopkins’ policies on harassment. The SGA has been explicit about its viewpoint-based reasons for rejecting VFL. The minutes from the March 12 meeting at which VFL was denied recognition refer to concerns about "making people feel uncomfortable," and later emails from unidentified SGA officials released by the national organization Students for Life refer to "the right to protect our students from things that are uncomfortable."  

As we explained in our letter, the SGA was wrong to reject VFL on these bases. Both of these types of expression are protected by Johns Hopkins’ official commitments to free speech, not least among them its statement that (PDF): 

[t]he free and open exchange of ideas is fundamental to the University’s purpose. It is not the University’s intent in promulgating this policy to inhibit free speech or the free communication of ideas by members of the academic community.

The SGA explicitly rejected VFL’s recognition in part because it judged VFL’s sidewalk counseling activities to be unprotected harassment. Johns Hopkins’ harassment policies (PDF), however, require that harassing conduct be "so severe or pervasive that it interferes with an individual’s work or academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working or academic environment." VFL’s proposed activities (in which the group had not yet even engaged) clearly fell short of this standard. 

As we also noted, Johns Hopkins’ Office of Institutional Equity likewise rejected the SGA’s contention that the counseling constituted harassment. 

In an April 3 letter to VFL president Andrew Guernsey, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity Caroline Laguerre-Brown stated her opinion that VFL’s proposed sidewalk counseling activities "would not constitute harassment within the meaning of" Johns Hopkins’ policies. Laguerre-Brown further reaffirmed Johns Hopkins’ free speech commitments, finding VFL’s sidewalk counseling "fully in accord with the university’s robust commitment to the values of free expression and open debate that is articulated in these policies." 

As documents such as the minutes of the SGA’s March 12 meeting and emails released by Students for Life show, distaste for VFL’s expression clearly factored into VFL’s rejection, going against the principles of viewpoint neutrality outlined by the Supreme Court. As the Court stated in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 233 (2000), "[w]hen a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others." 

Johns Hopkins, as a private university, is not legally bound by the First Amendment. But it makes numerous promises of free speech to its students, calling on it, among other things, "to protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas." For these promises to have moral weight, the SGA must be principled when deciding whether to recognize student organizations and must not reject groups based on the content and viewpoint of their expression. It was far from clear that the SGA was committed to this. We noted in our letter, for instance, the SGA’s insistence that it is "impossible to explain" its decision-making processes, and that it has no obligation to be transparent about how its decisions on accepting or rejecting organizations is reached. 

In addition to FIRE’s letter urging VFL’s recognition, ACLU of Maryland attorney David Rocah had some words for the SGA, telling the Baltimore Sun that it would be "profoundly wrong" to reject VFL’s recognition. Rocah further told the Sun:

"Even though private colleges and universities are not subject to the First Amendment, they hold themselves out as institutionally committed to the same principle of free speech and free inquiry and respect," he said.

"The student government’s actions in denying reorganization to this club because they don’t like their form of political protest is offensive, misguided and wrong, and completely antithetical to being an institution that values a diversity of opinions and viewpoints."

We applaud the SGA Judiciary Committee for its unanimous reversal VFL’s rejection. We hope now that Johns Hopkins’ student government will work to make clear to all students, and the SGA members responsible for approving groups, the precise requirements of the approval process, and outline clear, content- and viewpoint-neutral criteria by which they will be evaluated.

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