Johns Hopkins University Continues to Defend Censorship

January 23, 2012

Johns Hopkins University’s utter lack of concern for its students’ free speech rights is on display again, this time in comments the university’s spokesman made to the Maryland Gazette last week. 

You may remember that in 2006, Hopkins threw the book at then-18-year-old student Justin Park for posting a Halloween party invitation deemed to be offensive on Facebook. Park’s original punishment (reduced somewhat in the face of public pressure) included suspension from the university for a year, completion of 300 hours of community service, an assignment to read 12 books and to write a reflection paper on each, and mandatory attendance at a workshop on diversity and race relations.

In the face of criticism over this incident, Hopkins doubled down on its act of censorship, adopting a broad new speech code prohibiting any "rude, disrespectful behavior" on campus—a speech code that is still in force today. Then-president William Brody also stated, in a column for the Johns Hopkins Gazette, that breaches of "civility" were "unacceptable in our community of free and open discourse." Despite repeated requests from FIRE and from Hopkins’ student government to defend students’ free speech rights, Hopkins has never apologized for its actions or repealed its speech code. For these reasons, Hopkins remains on FIRE’s "Red Alert" list—a list of schools that, in FIRE’s estimation, display severe and ongoing disregard for the fundamental rights of their students and faculty members.

Hopkins confirmed the "ongoing" part of that definition last week, when university spokesman Dennis O’Shea responded to FIRE’s criticism of Hopkins in the Maryland Gazette:

Johns Hopkins spokesman Dennis O’Shea said FIRE simply has been targeting the school for several years over incidents involving a conservative student newspaper and a pro-war professor, but that students didn’t need the organization to "tell them how to think."

"I don’t think that people buy into the notion that encouraging civility is somehow less than encouraging the free expression of ideas," O’Shea said.

O’Shea’s comments illustrate FIRE’s point that, after all these years, Hopkins still doesn’t get it. First, as anyone who understands the difference between a request and command can see, the problem is that Hopkins does not simply encourage civility—it mandates civility through a speech code that explicitly prohibits rude or disrespectful behavior on campus. This is unacceptable at any institution of higher learning that claims to uphold freedom of speech on its campus. Perhaps Hopkins would benefit from a review of pertinent case law on the issue of "civility" mandates.

Second, who is in a position to take Hopkins students and "tell them what to think," and who is actively doing it? FIRE, whose only power is that of persuasion? Or Johns Hopkins University, which reacts to bad taste on Facebook by suspending you for a year and slapping you with 300 hours of community service? 

If Hopkins would like to rewrite this policy to clarify that it is merely aspirational, and to make clear that students will not be—as they have been in the past—punished for breaching the university’s standards of civility, FIRE would be pleased to remove Hopkins from our Red Alert list and announce that the university has finally decided to protect its students’ free speech rights. Until then, however, we will continue our rightful criticism of the university’s free speech record. 

Schools:  Johns Hopkins University