How Can Johns Hopkins University Get Off FIRE’s Red Alert List?

By September 4, 2009

Following up on FIRE’s full-page ad in U.S. News & World Report‘s "America’s Best Colleges" issue, released nationwide last week, we have been explaining why each of our six Red Alert schools has been named among the worst of the worst when it comes to individual rights on campusand what each school can do to get off the list. So far, we have outlined the cases at Brandeis University, Colorado College, Michigan State University, and Tufts University. Today, we turn our attention to Johns Hopkins University, where FIRE has placed an advertisement in its student newspaper, The Johns Hopkins News-Letter.

Hopkins earned its Red Alert designation by suspending eighteen-year-old junior Justin Park for posting an "offensive" Halloween party invitation online at Because some found the invitation racially offensive, Park was charged with and found guilty of "harassment," "intimidation," and "failing to respect the rights of others." Park’s original punishment included suspension from the university for a year; 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. It took public pressure for the punishment even to be reduced.

FIRE wrote to Hopkins President William Brody to emphasize that the university’s severe treatment of Park was inconsistent with its Undergraduate Student Conduct Code requirement that students must "protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas." Hopkins responded, arguing in effect that the university values things such as "mutual respect" over freedom of speech. Since private schools are free to set their own values and speech restrictions, we replied that Hopkins must at least adhere to truth-in-advertising. Hopkins has both a moral and a legal obligation to uphold the right to free expression that it has promised to its students. Hopkins remains free to publicly disavow its stated commitment to free speech. Instead, Hopkins wants to have it both ways: to pretend that speech is free at Hopkins when its treatment of cases like Justin Park’s proves just the opposite.

The sad truth is that Hopkins continues to maintain the charade, and speech has become even less free since Justin Park’s time. In April 2007, we again wrote President Brody, who had noted that Hopkins had revised its "Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect for All" because of Park’s case. The result was an even more restrictive expression policy in the name of building "a stronger community." The Principles provide, in relevant part, that:

The Johns Hopkins University is an environment in which all people behave in a manner that engenders mutual respect, treating each other with courtesy and civility regardless of position or status in the academy. Rude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated.

Our community is one where we demonstrate respect for each other; we accept our individual differences; and we provide opportunities for everyone to maximize his or her potential. Every member of our community will be held accountable for creating a welcoming workplace for all. [Boldface and italics in original.]

This remarkable code seems to come straight from the Victorian England so bitingly satirized by Oscar Wilde, albeit wholly devoid of humor or levity. The code, by its very breadth, turns common student interaction into actionable campus offenses. Such a code is impossible to enforce uniformly, for virtually everyone is guilty of being "disrespectful" at some point, so the only option is for Hopkins to enforce this code selectively, whenever officials decide that speech has been, for example, rude enough. The code therefore virtually guarantees arbitrary punishments and viewpoint discrimination.

Confronted with these realities, Hopkins responded by simply stating that Hopkins promotes "important University values" that include "respect for individual differences, freedom of expression, diversity, mutual respect and non-discrimination." But students have been left with no way to understand how Hopkins can respect their freedom of expression and simultaneously reserve the right to punish them for exercising that freedom whenever some administrator or conduct committee deems the student too rude or too disrespectful. Furthermore, since December 2006, Hopkins students have labored under Brody’s own published statement that speech that is "tasteless" or that breaches standards of "civility" will not be allowed.

Students should think twice before attending a university that promises free expression but takes it away at the same time, and has no qualms about defending its self-contradictory policy. So long as a Hopkins student cannot be sure whether he or she will be the next Justin Park, those who engage in vigorous discourse and debate will be at risk. President Brody repeatedly failed to respect and affirm the rights of his students, and to admit the plain truth that members of the Hopkins community do not have the same free speech rights as they would at any of Maryland’s public colleges and universities. Thankfully, Brody no longer presides over Hopkins, his stead having been assumed this year by Ronald Daniels, formerly provost at the University of Pennsylvania.

For Daniels to see to Hopkins’ removal from FIRE’s Red Alert list would send a strong message to the community. To do so, Hopkins must either repeal the ridiculous speech code banning "disrespectful" expression or make it 100% clear that this statement has no force as a rule and may never be used to punish protected speech. Without such action, Hopkins’ claims to respect freedom of speech are simply farcical. FIRE can only hope that Daniels will act quickly to better his predecessor’s dismal record.

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