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Upon reading FIRE’s press release on Johns Hopkins University’s shameful viewpoint discrimination against The Carrollton Record (TCR), a conservative student newspaper, Annie Turner of Maryland e-mailed JHU President William Brody asking him to reverse the college’s decision. She received the following response from JHU spokesman Dennis O’Shea, here analyzed for your reading pleasure.

Dear Ms. Turner,
Thanks for your message below to President Brody. We appreciate your thoughts and I am pleased to respond on his behalf.
Please be assured that Johns Hopkins University fully supports free speech on campus, including the expression of viewpoints, popular or otherwise, contained in student publications.

This has the merit of being very polite, a skill that apparently escapes some college presidents. I’m talking here about President Timothy Sullivan of the College of William and Mary, who famously told one e-mailer: “Some fool has sent me an e-mail and signed your name to it.” That said, these are the usual empty platitudes administrators use right before they try to explain away why their illiberal behavior was okay in this case.

There never was any order barring the Carrollton Record from campus. The editors have been and remain free to distribute the newspaper (including the May issue) at a number of regular distribution sites on campus. Among these are student gathering areas such as the library, the athletic center and Levering Hall.

Turner didn’t claim in her e-mail that there was an order barring the Carrollton Record from campus, which indicates that this has to be a form letter. That isn’t unusual, but it does raise questions later, as you’ll see. Regarding the distribution issue, neither FIRE nor the paper ever said that TCR couldn’t distribute the paper anywhere on campus. What we said is that TCR was and apparently still is forbidden to distribute in the dormitories, unlike other newspapers and advertising handbills. JHU doesn’t deny this; in fact, it admits it in the next paragraph.

Copies of the May issue were removed from student residence halls and returned to the editors. This was done pursuant to a long-standing policy requiring that the Office of Residential Life must approve materials before they are distributed in residence halls. The intent of the policy is to maintain a reasonably clutter-free environment in the common areas of the residence halls.

This is wrong in so many ways. First of all, the university is admitting that it had people go around confiscating copies of the paper out of multiple dorms, which seems odd even from a “clutter” based principle—wouldn’t it be more logical just to tell them not to put the papers in the dorms next time?
Second, this statement would appear to make the Office of Residential Life the equivalent to the Ministry of Information in Orwell’s 1984. We know that other newspapers are distributed in the dorms—take a look at this picture—and JHU is presumably telling us in the above paragraph that the Hopkins Donkey is read by administrators before they allow it to be placed in the dorms. This is called prior review, and is hideously unconstitutional if the government does it. And for good reason—prior review is invariably a feature of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the world. But here JHU cheerfully assures us that The Hopkins Donkey and anything else placed in the dorms has been as thoroughly vetted as Pravda. This is not good news.
But wait—take another look at this picture. What are the newspapers sitting on? Are they strewn about willy-nilly? Do they cover the floor and walls? Nope, they’re on a newspaper rack. That’s right, an object designed to distribute newspapers, and it’s located right in a dorm. So much for that “clutter” argument.

I hope this explanation has been helpful. Thank you again for writing.
Best regards,
Dennis O'Shea

As “helpfulness” goes, this explanation is lacking. What about the newspaper theft? No mention. Turner did not specifically ask about it, but you’d think this form letter would have some explanation in it of the university’s reaction (or lack thereof). Further, there’s no explanation of why it is apparently fine to have The Hopkins Donkey and The JHU Gazette in the dorms, along with numerous ads for a pizza joint, but not TCR. So this response, while calculated to assuage angry correspondents, really does nothing to address Turner’s concerns or those of FIRE. Finally, O’Shea conveniently forgot to mention one of the most outrageous facts of the case, which is that TCR members are still facing charges of harassment simply for publishing an article. Maybe this sort of campus spin is no surprise any more, but every time it happens it’s still disappointing.

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