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Expression, Not Harassment, at Hopkins

Inside Higher Ed features an article today about Justin Park’s suspension at Johns Hopkins University. The article concludes with a statement by Hopkins Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs Dennis O’Shea, who told IHE, “There is a difference between expression of opinion and harassment.”

There is no doubt a distinction between the two—I just don’t think that Hopkins knows what that distinction is. The entirety of Park’s crime has been to create two invitations to a Halloween party. Justin filled the first invitation with language suiting the party’s theme, “Halloween in the Hood.” After he was told to take that invitation down because of its “offensive” content, Park posted a second invitation, in which he omitted the slang but included language still according with the party’s theme—which, it is worth noting, Hopkins has not publicly cited as a problem in itself.

So O’Shea and other administrators seem to think that posting certain language on Facebook—terms like “bling bling,” “hoochie hoops,” and “scallywhops”—constitutes “harassment.” Harassment, however, is a serious offense that has been specifically defined time and again by the U.S. Supreme Court, by numerous other federal courts, and by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). In 2003, the OCR, concerned over the mounting abuse of harassment policies, issued a letter clarifying that:

…the offensiveness of a particular expression, standing alone, is not a legally sufficient basis to establish a hostile environment under the statutes enforced by OCR. In order to establish a hostile environment, harassment must be sufficiently serious (i.e., severe, persistent or pervasive) as to limit or deny a student's ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program.

Hopkins is hard-pressed to prove that Park’s Facebook invitations meet these criteria. The language Park used was no more severe than language commonly heard in hip-hop music, on “Chappelle’s Show,” and I’d venture to say even in the hallowed halls of Johns Hopkins itself. Park’s language was certainly not persistent, as it appeared in only two Facebook posts. Nor was it pervasive, as the posts could only be seen by students who selected to be friends with Justin on Facebook and specifically sought the pages out or received e-mails containing links to them via Facebook’s automatically generated e-mail announcements. Calling this harassment is to strip the term of any meaning, and it trivializes real harassment.

So yes, O’Shea is correct that there is a distinction between expression and harassment. But he’d be wise to take his own words to heart, as Hopkins’ definition of “harassment” bears no resemblance to the legal description of that term.

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