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At Johns Hopkins, Students Voice Frustration With New Speech Code

The Johns Hopkins News-Letter reports that this past Tuesday night, Johns Hopkins University Student Council members met with university officials to air frustration and concern over the school’s new speech code. Torch readers will remember that the policy, entitled “Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect,” was instituted by JHU President William Brody in response to the “Halloween in the Hood” party held by the Sigma Chi fraternity on campus. (Of course, that party also resulted in the controversial suspension of JHU junior Justin Park; the most severe punishment FIRE has ever seen for a student engaged in pure speech.) We here at FIRE promptly named the new code our Speech Code of the Month for December 2006, and followed that ignominious distinction by dubbing Johns Hopkins University our first-ever Censor of the Year.

The News-Letter reports that the Student Council members initially voiced their problems with the new code in a letter to administrators, writing: 

How ought a student act in order to abide by this code? A student feels pressured to avoid communicating any idea that could be considered offensive in any way to anyone at any time ... this is counterintuitive to the nature of a research university, which should be a source of free, independent thought. 

We at FIRE couldn’t have said it better ourselves, and we’re encouraged by the reaction of the Student Council. In raising these principled concerns, Council members are acting precisely how representatives of a diverse student body should: by seeking to ensure that no one inherently subjective definition of “civility” rules the day on campus. As sophomore class president Prasanna Chandrasekhar noted: “These rules are too unclear. Rude and disrespectful -- what does that mean?” Exactly.

The German poet Friedrich Hölderlin famously wrote, “But where danger is, grows the saving power also.” We at FIRE sincerely hope that the JHU Student Council may indeed be the “saving power” so desperately needed for the restoration of free expression at Johns Hopkins University. 

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