Johns Hopkins’ Unique Interpretation of ‘Free Speech’

By December 11, 2006

Last week saw the latest round of exchanges between FIRE and Johns Hopkins University regarding Hopkins’ suspension of eighteen-year-old junior Justin Park. On Wednesday, December 6, Hopkins wrote FIRE a letter defending the university’s overreaction to Park’s two Facebook.com advertisements for Sigma Chi’s “Halloween in the Hood” party. FIRE in turn wrote back to Hopkins on Friday, December 8.

Hopkins Vice President and General Counsel Stephen Dunham defended Hopkins’ policies and procedures in his letter, stating that “The University’s vision includes an academic community where the exchange of ideas thrives, where activities are open and non-discriminatory, and where individuals respect the rights of others and are treated with dignity and respect.” Dunham closed his letter with the puzzling assertion that, “Contrary to [FIRE’s] conclusions, nothing about the University’s policies and procedures or the specific findings that were made violate anyone’s free speech.”

FIRE responded in a letter to Hopkins administrators and trustees by addressing the assertion that Hopkins’ actions accord with the basic principles of free speech. First, we emphasized that the speech contained in Justin Park’s Facebook advertisements is constitutionally protected and absolutely would not be actionable in society at large. In a free society, people are allowed to make jokes involving the phrases “scallywhop” and “bling blang sticky thang” without fear of reprisal. Hopkins administrators need to recognize that barring the utterance of this sort of language—both on- and off-campus—involves placing limits upon students’ free expression. As a private institution, Hopkins is free to make that decision, but it cannot continue to claim that Hopkins is a “forum for the free expression of ideas” or to assert that it is not violating anyone’s free speech.

In his letter, Dunham corrected our account of how Park’s first Facebook ad came to administrators’ attention. FIRE’s November 28 letter to Hopkins stated that student complaints about the first Facebook ad precipitated the university’s directive to remove it. We came to that conclusion based on Greek Life Coordinator Robert Turning’s November 6 letter to Park, which stated that “Some students who read the facebook advertisement filed a report with Campus Security about the advertisement and the party.” But Dunham wrote on Wednesday that:

The University Greek Life Coordinator (in his capacity as a university official, and not, as you suggest, at the request or urging of any student group) directed the fraternity to remove the invitation.

In response, we wrote that:

[T]he fact that Mr. Turning was policing the non-university website Facebook.com for offensive material—even in the absence of student complaints—causes us even greater concern than the facts as we previously understood them. We believe it is entirely inappropriate for a university official to police students’ off-campus writings in search of potential disciplinary violations. Such a practice represents an invasive return to the in loco parentis approach to college administration that college students heroically challenged and defeated decades ago. It also demonstrates a shockingly low institutional respect for the autonomy and privacy of your students. The fact that the off-campus, non-university activities of Johns Hopkins students will be monitored by university administrators is another unpleasant truth that Hopkins’ promotional materials have a responsibility to disclose.

Hopkins has some serious decisions to make regarding its institutional character. As Hopkins administrators weigh the cost of closing their university to the type of objectionable yet protected speech that students across the country utilize on a daily basis, an eighteen-year-old’s academic future hangs in the balance. FIRE and an increasingly attentive and concerned public all hope that Hopkins will make the right decision.

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