FIRE recently received a disappointing response to our latest letter to Johns Hopkins protesting a major contraction of free speech rights on campus. Following October’s “Halloween in the Hood” incident, Hopkins introduced a new speech code, the Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect for All (the “Principles”), and President William Brody wrote a column condemning controversial speech. At the close of our letter, we stated:
FIRE urges you to repeal these stifling policies and to give your students the freedom they deserve. To restrict freedom of expression is to stifle the free and open flow of ideas upon which higher education relies. Surely, this cannot describe your vision for Johns Hopkins University.
In response, Stephen S. Dunham, Hopkins’s Vice President and General Counsel, wrote:
The Principles and other University policies promote important University values including respect for individual differences, freedom of expression, diversity, mutual respect and non-discrimination. We simply do not agree with your conclusion that it is somehow improper for Johns Hopkins University to adopt principles and policies that promote these fundamental goals and values.
FIRE believes that private schools have the right to define themselves as they choose, even in ways that restrict freedom of speech. However, they must be upfront about such restrictions. They cannot, as Hopkins is trying to do, mandate civility while maintaining that the school is nonetheless committed to free expression.
As we have said in The Torch, in the news, and in our letters to the school, our primary concern is that a policy like the “Principles,” which mandates civility, is not only vague, but leaves students at the mercy of administrators. President Brody adds to this concern in his column in the Johns Hopkins Gazette when he claims that speech must rise to a “standard of seriousness of purpose or intent.” After this statement, how could he write, in the same paragraph, that he believes Hopkins is “a community of free and open discourse”?
In case you think this is simply FIRE nitpicking, I refer you to a blog Will wrote on the Student Council’s reaction to the “Principles.” The Johns Hopkins News-Letter reported that the Student Council sent a letter to administrators in which they stated:
How ought a student act in order to abide by this code? A student feels pressured to avoid communicating any idea that could be considered offensive in any way to anyone at any time … this is counterintuitive to the nature of a research university, which should be a source of free, independent thought.
If President Brody believes that civility trumps all values at Johns Hopkins, then he should make that clear to students and rewrite the school’s motto, “the truth shall make you free” (or educate his students on his version of “the truth” and warn them that no other versions or opinions are acceptable). However, if he believes that one of the country’s elite research universities should be a place of free and rigorous speech and debate, then he needs to reconsider statements and policies that unquestionably restrict speech. Either way, Hopkins students deserve to know what their school stands for before paying huge tuition checks and dedicating four years of their lives to the institution.