This Month in FIRE History: Johns Hopkins University Suspends Student for ‘Offensive’ Party Invitation

By on November 17, 2011

The holidays are fast approaching, and the party invitations are on their way. But on campuses around the country, holiday revelry, seasonal greetings, and party invitations may be cause for anxiety, not joy. A case five years ago at Johns Hopkins University holds lessons for students and administrators alike, as well as an opportunity for resolution as we look forward to a new year.

In late 2006, FIRE came to the aid of Johns Hopkins student Justin Park, who was targeted by administrators for posting "offensive" Halloween party invitations on Facebook. Park had posted the invitations to advertise his Sigma Chi fraternity’s "Halloween in the Hood" party. After learning that some were offended by the content of the invitations, Park removed them and posted a new invite. On November 6, Park was notified by Associate Dean of Students Dorothy Sheppard that he had been 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." On November 20, he was told that he had been found guilty and suspended for one year, and that he would also be required to complete 300 hours of community service, read 12 books and write a paper on each, and attend an approved workshop on diversity and race relations. In light of the enormity of these sanctions, Park came to FIRE for help.

After FIRE mounted a publicity campaign, the school eventually reduced its punishment. Regardless, the charge remained and the school refused to reverse its finding, leaving free speech hanging in the balance. In fact, this case was just another symptom of the school’s ongoing disrespect for the First Amendment, and a catalyst for much larger problems at Johns Hopkins.

Earlier in 2006, the school violated the free speech rights of the campus conservative newspaper The Carrolton Record, investigating the paper for harassment and turning a blind eye when 600 copies of the issue in question were stolen. Even more worrisome, in response to the Justin Park controversy, President William Brody introduced a new policy prohibiting "rude, disrespectful behavior" at the university and announced that uncivil or "tasteless" speech would not be tolerated on campus.

Benjamin Ginsberg chronicles these policy changes and the overall reaction of the school to the case in his recent indictment of the campus administrative class, The Fall of the Faculty, explaining how a campus committee was established to ensure equal treatment of minorities, how students and faculty were required to take racial sensitivity courses, and how incoming freshmen were "assigned a book dealing with racial issues that would be discussed in special orientation seminars led by university administrators." Johns Hopkins’ assault on student and faculty rights earned it a spot on FIRE’s "Red Alert List," where it remains to this day.

Sadly, Johns Hopkins continues to send the message to its students that free speech is free only insofar as it doesn’t offend others or betray university-sanctioned ideas of civility. Whether that expression comes in the form of a party invitation or a newspaper article, people are at risk of punishment as long as Johns Hopkins maintains its restrictive policies. As we enter a new season of celebration and look forward to a new year, FIRE calls on Johns Hopkins’ current president, Ronald J. Daniels (whose time at the University of Pennsylvania surely showed him the ease of establishing sound policies and the benefits of upholding free expression), to revise these codes and affirm the school’s commitment to individual rights.

Schools: Johns Hopkins University