The Consequences of “Civility”: A Torch Reader’s Take on Hopkins

By December 18, 2006

Dr. Roy Poses—friend of FIRE, President of the Foundation for Integrity and Responsibility in Medicine, and Clinical Associate Professor at Brown University School of Medicine—has written an interesting commentary about the ramifications of the call for “civility” written last week by Dr. William R. Brody, President of Johns Hopkins University. President Brody penned his paean to civility in response to FIRE’s extensive criticism of Hopkins’ suspension of student Justin Park for posting Halloween party invitations online that some students found offensive. As Tara usefully explained last week, President Brody’s argument is deeply flawed, thoroughly inadequate, and displays a seeming contempt for the intellectual and logical underpinnings of free speech.

In his post on the informative Health Care Renewal blog, Dr. Poses contemplates the consequences of President Brody’s subjective definition of civility for those studying or working in health care at Hopkins:

Although the particulars of the current case at Johns Hopkins University seem far afield from the issues of concern to Health Care Renewal, Dr Brody did not limit the application of his argument to party invitations posted by undergraduates to the internet. His ability to punish any speech not deemed to be sufficiently “substantive and serious” should thus give pause to anyone at JHU who might publish clinical research that could offend vested interests, blow the whistle on health care quality issues, or question hospital or university administrators. Dr Brody’s ability to punish such speech also seems to contradict the University’s mission statement, which aims to “foster independent and original research, and to bring the benefits of discovery to the world.”

Finally, I should note that Dr Brody’s writings may also give insight into how little leaders of commercial health care organizations respect free speech, free expression, and academic freedom. Note that Dr Brody leads not only Johns Hopkins University, but also, as a Director, Medtronic Inc, “the global leader in medical technology.” According to Medtronic’s 2006 proxy filing, Dr Brody’s yearly compensation as Director is $80,000 in cash, and $70,000 in stock options. Dr Brody currently owns more than 72,000 shares or the equivalent in the company’s stock (worth more than $3,900,000 at the stock price of $54.28 /share today). Yet, I wonder if he would regard any questions about whether this part-time job, entailing fiduciary responsibility to a company which has “research and/or business relationships” with JHU, and which “periodically makes donations and/or grants” to JHU, constituted an important conflict of interest as not “substantive and serious,” but mere “common name-calling?” I doubt anyone at JHU will try to find that out.

Dr. Poses raises interesting questions about the chilling effect a “civility” policy like the one proposed by President Brody would engender. Since the definition of acceptably “civil” speech would finally be left to the determination of President Brody and other administrators, it is crucial to consider what interests they might strive to protect or conceal via the power to control dialogue on campus. In deciding what speech passes their subjective civility test, is it really any stretch to imagine administrators acting to prevent themselves embarrassment or pecuniary loss?

FIRE thanks Dr. Poses for his insight—and promises to keep the pressure on Hopkins.

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