BALTIMORE, September 21, 2006—The Johns Hopkins University (JHU) has finally dropped its investigation of a harassment complaint filed against staff members of a conservative student newspaper, The Carrollton Record (TCR). After several months of correspondence with JHU administrators, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has gained assurance that JHU is no longer pursuing the investigation, but FIRE’s other concerns—about JHU’s viewpoint discrimination, indifference towards newspaper theft, and limitations on distribution rights—remain.
“We are pleased that JHU has ceased its investigation into TCR staffers,” stated FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, “although JHU should have never investigated this complaint at all. Students should be free to criticize their university and other student groups without fear of reprisal.”
TCR’s travails began with its May issue, which criticized a campus event featuring pornographic film producer Chi Chi LaRue. The cover featured a photo of LaRue surrounded by photos of members of the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance (DSAGA), the student group that sponsored the event. As FIRE previously reported, approximately 600 copies were stolen out of the main library, and the Office of Residential Life confiscated all copies of TCR that had been distributed in student dorms. That office later notified TCR that it was not permitted to distribute in dorms. JHU further informed TCR staff members that a harassment complaint had been filed against them.
Over the past few months, FIRE has urged JHU to rectify three errors in its reaction to TCR’s May issue. First, and most alarming, JHU investigated the complaint of harassment against TCR staffers. In a letter to FIRE on May 26, JHU General Counsel Frederick Savage wrote that the “Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Programs has received a complaint that the TCR’s publication of the cover photos amounted to harassment,” and that “that office is investigating the complaint.” After FIRE objected to that investigation in subsequent letters to JHU’s Board of Trustees and president on August 9 and September 5, JHU finally said in a letter on September 12 that “there is not now any open investigation” into charges of harassment.
Second, JHU has defended the limitation on TCR’s distribution rights by appealing to a posting policy that requires prior approval for materials posted in dorms. FIRE has alleged that the selective enforcement of this policy against TCR—and not against other publications, like the liberal student newspaper The Donkey—represents viewpoint discrimination. JHU addressed this concern by drafting a new policy on newspaper distribution that limits distribution of all publications to a select few designated sites.
“It’s unfortunate that JHU decided that equal censorship—not equal freedom—was the best course of action when confronted with its own viewpoint discrimination,” Lukianoff commented. “How does this help the university function as a ‘marketplace of ideas?’”
Finally, JHU has never recognized the theft of nearly 600 newspapers, and University General Counsel Savage even stated in his letter that since TCR is a free publication, “any charge of theft would be difficult to sustain.” JHU’s most recent letter to FIRE stated that the theft “was a matter for campus security, which did not find cause to pursue an investigation.” Despite FIRE’s objections and a Maryland state law strictly forbidding theft of any newspapers, including free newspapers, JHU has not stood up to condemn the theft of TCR on its campus.
“JHU was right to end its bogus harassment investigation, but the university does not have much to be proud of in the way it handled this case,” Lukianoff said. “Problems still remain, and as the school year gets underway, FIRE will be watching JHU.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Johns Hopkins University can be viewed at thefire.org/jhu.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
William Brody, President, Johns Hopkins University: 410-516-8068; email@example.com
Susan Boswell, Dean of Student Life, Johns Hopkins University: 410-516-8208; firstname.lastname@example.org