FIRE’s criticism of Johns Hopkins University for its blatant disregard for free speech has gained the attention of the Baltimore media. The Baltimore Sun reported today on Hopkins’ one-year suspension of student Justin Park, and on the letter that FIRE sent the university to protest the severe, life-altering sanctions imposed upon Park simply for engaging in free speech. Park is the social chair of Hopkins’ Sigma Chi fraternity, which was sanctioned for hosting a “Halloween in the Hood” party that offended some students at Hopkins. Park posted an invitation to the party on Facebook.com, and after students complained that they were offended by the invitation, he was tried by Hopkins’ Student Conduct Board for, among other things, harassment and intimidation. The Student Conduct Board found him guilty and suspended him from the university until January 2008. They also ordered him to complete 300 hours of community service, to read 12 books and write a reflection paper on each, and to attend diversity training.
In its Student Handbook, Hopkins describes itself as a “forum for the free expression of ideas.” Why, then, is it threatening a student’s entire academic career for engaging in expression? At a public university, or in society at large, Park’s invitation would be completely protected by the First Amendment. It is not harassment, and it is not intimidation. On the contrary, in finding Park guilty of those offenses, Hopkins has completely divorced them from both their legal meanings and their moral bases. Harassment is conduct so severe, persistent, and pervasive that it effectively bars its victim’s access to an education. Intimidation requires a threat of harmful action against a specific person. Park’s satirical invitation bears no relationship to harassment or intimidation in any real sense. Rather, Hopkins has simply made up its own definitions for those terms. If I were a student at Hopkins, or a parent considering sending my child there, I would be very concerned by the severe and arbitrary actions the administration has taken against Justin Park. As one student told the Sun:
For the university to interfere because of a joke is just inappropriate…It goes to show you that Hopkins will do anything to protect its reputation. That’s not a way a university should treat its students.
The administration’s actions are certain to have a chilling effect on free speech at Hopkins. Given the consequences, would you want to guess at what the administration might consider offensive? Or would you just keep your mouth shut?