Johns Hopkins Student Government Association Asks President to Defend Free Speech

By on March 6, 2010

Promising news recently from Red Alert school Johns Hopkins University. Marc Perkins, President of the Student Government Association, wrote to Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels last month on behalf of the Undergraduate Student Government Association to ask that he uphold free speech rights at Johns Hopkins. 

His letter begins by asking that President Daniels support Maryland H.B. 677/S.B. 805, the Free Speech at Nonpublic Institutions of Higher Education Bill. If enacted, the bill would function much like the Leonard Law in California, requiring private institutions to afford their students free speech rights as long as the school does not have an overriding religious purpose. 

Perkins cites Hopkins’ deplorable civility code that, in his words, "allows the university to punish students for merely expressing views that are controversial."  He then states that such infringement of students’ rights "hurts the cause of academic freedom at our university and has a chilling effect upon all forms of speech." Perkins goes on to describe the effects of the bill, which would essentially require secular private institutions to uphold the First Amendment rights of students, just as public institutions are bound by law to do. Perkins refers to the Undergraduate Conduct Code that promises to "protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas" and asks that Daniels support the bill so that the university will be held legally accountable to keep that promise. Read the full letter here

While FIRE takes no position on legislationeven on such bills affecting students’ free speech rightswe are heartened that the student government at Johns Hopkins is taking seriously threats to their free speech rights as promised to them by Hopkins’ own policies. Whatever President Daniels’ decision on Maryland H.B. 677/S.B. 805, we hope that he rescinds Hopkins’ civility code, as we asked earlier this year, and we are able at long last to remove Hopkins from our Red Alert list.

As Torch readers know, Johns Hopkins received its Red Alert status after it refused to admit wrongdoing for its draconian punishment of a student for a pair of Facebook flyers, and for later instituting a repressive civility code. 

The incident began when Justin Park, a Hopkins student, posted a flyer on Facebook advertising his fraternity’s "Halloween in the Hood" party. Students found his flyer offensive and the student was contacted by Director of Greek Affairs Robert Turning. The student removed the advertisement but after receiving inquiries about whether the party was still on, he posted a second advertisement. Associate Dean of Students Dorothy Sheppard sent the student a letter alleging that the advertisements "contained offensive racial stereotyping" and that "there were offensive decorations at the party." He was charged with "failing to respect the rights of others and to refrain from behavior that impairs the university’s purpose or its reputation in the community," violating the "university’s anti-harassment policy," "failure to comply with the directions of a university administrator," "conduct or a pattern of conduct that harasses a person or a group," and "intimidation." 

Following a hearing where he was found responsible for all charges, Park was given a one year suspension, sentenced to 300 hours of community service, assigned 12 books and required to write a reflection paper on each, and required to attend a workshop on diversity and race relations. FIRE wrote two letters to then Hopkins president William Brody, asking him to vacate the charges against the student, as they violated Hopkins’ own promises of free expression to its students, and issued two press releases inciting intense public outrage over the draconian punishments. On appeal, Park’s punishment was reduced, but not rescinded. 

Then, to follow up this egregious act of censorship, President Brody instituted a civility policy stating, "Rude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated." He further defended the policy, stating in an article in The JHU Gazette that speech that is "tasteless" or that breaches Hopkins’ standards of "civility" is prohibited. FIRE again wrote to President Brody, this time asking him to revoke the policy and respect his students’ rights. We wrote:

Johns Hopkins is a private institution, but a private institution that claims to cherish the right to free expression cannot, in good conscience, extend fewer rights and freedoms to its students than a public institution, bound by the Constitution. Do students at Johns Hopkins truly enjoy fewer protections of expression than students at Maryland’s community colleges? To restrict freedom of speech is to create a stifled and intellectually bereft environment-the very antithesis of what a university like Johns Hopkins claims to be.

In 2007, Johns Hopkins became one of the inaugural schools on FIRE’s Red Alert list, for the worst violators of students’ rights, appearing in ads in two consecutive issues of U.S. News & World Report‘s "Best Colleges" edition.     

Schools: Johns Hopkins University