This Month in FIRE History: Johns Hopkins Suspends Student for One Year for ‘Offensive’ Halloween Invitation

By November 17, 2008

Few schools have been more stubborn about censoring free expression than Johns Hopkins University (JHU). JHU is on our Red Alert list for being among the "worst of the worst" when it comes to violating individual rights on campusand the university earned this ignominious distinction in November of 2006 in one of the most egregious cases we have ever seen.

The incident began with an invitation posted by student Justin Park on Facebook.com for a fraternity costume party dubbed "Halloween in the Hood." When complaints about the invitation surfaced, the Director of Greek Affairs asked Park to remove the invitation. Park took the original invitation down but replaced it with a revised version on the evening before the party.

A week later, Associate Dean of Students Dorothy Sheppard sent Park a letter stating that the two Facebook.com party invitations "contained offensive racial stereotyping" and that "there were offensive decorations at the party." The letter additionally stated that Park was being 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."

JHU found Park guilty of these charges, and his punishment included suspension from the university until January 2008, completion of 300 hours of community service, an assignment to read twelve books and to write a reflection paper on each, and mandatory attendance at a workshop on diversity and race relations.

Though the university came to a private settlement with Park in January of 2007 after FIRE intervened, the school’s record of censoring free speech has not improved. As we stated in a letter to the university in 2007: "To restrict freedom of speech is to create a stifled and intellectually bereft environmentthe very antithesis of what a university like Johns Hopkins claims to be."

After years of being at odds with the administration at Johns Hopkins, we at FIRE are hopeful that the impending retirement of President William Brody will lead to a new era for the university. We have clearly outlined the steps that need to be taken in order for Johns Hopkins to extricate itself from our Red Alert list: either disavow its commitment to the free expression of ideas (as a private institution may) or ensure that expression will truly be free at JHU. We hope that the new president will fulfill the school’s morally and legally binding commitment (per its student handbook) to "protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas."

Schools: Johns Hopkins University