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Johns Hopkins University investigates professor for anti-Palestinian commentary

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Johns Hopkins University professor Darren Klugman is the latest victim of overzealous administrative action in the continuing tumult caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

JHU has placed Klugman, a School of Medicine professor as well as a student in the business school, on indefinite leave and opened an investigation following his anti-Palestinian social media posts. Now, FIRE is calling on JHU to honor its commitment to freedom of speech by immediately dropping its investigation into Klugman’s expression and rescinding any disciplinary action taken against him.

FIRE is calling on JHU to honor its commitment to freedom of speech by immediately dropping its investigation into Klugman’s expression and rescinding any disciplinary action taken against him.

On Oct. 7 and in the following days, Klugman made numerous posts to X (formerly Twitter) expressing his views on the conflict, including the following statement: “#Palestinians showing the world exactly who they are & what they want – dead Jews & no more #Israel. Just savage animals.” Klugman also made posts and comments defending Israel’s use of force and arguing talks of peace and moderation between Israel and Palestine are unrealistic.

In November, JHU placed Klugman on indefinite leave from his faculty duties and launched an ongoing investigation into his posts both as a faculty member and student. Klugman now faces a sprawling investigation for discriminatory harassment, professional misconduct, threats of violence, and infractions under the student code of conduct, which prohibits actions that “adversely affect” JHU’s “integrity or mission.” (The disciplinary posture here is confusing because, even though Klugman is suspended as a professor, it seems as if this investigation is proceeding under standards applicable to students.)

JHU’s actions prompted FIRE to write the university to explain why investigating Klugman and placing him on leave violates the institution’s commitment to freedom of speech, which guarantees Klugman — as a member of the faculty and student body — the right to speak and debate without “fear of restraint or penalty . . . even when those views are provocative or unfamiliar.” Based on this promise, Klugman would reasonably believe he is free to speak his mind on a matter of public concern without fear of punishment — even if others find his words offensive or hateful

In the same vein, JHU may not punish merely uncivil expression. The American Association of University Professors has long criticized “civility” standards as pernicious threats to free expression. Indeed, committing to free speech means protecting heated and even intemperate debate on sensitive and controversial matters of public concern — such as the matters that Klugman’s posts address. 

JHU’s investigation into Klugman’s posts as discriminatory harassment is likewise meritless because they also do not meet the legal standard for peer-on-peer discriminatory harassment. Even incendiary social media posts, without more, do not meet the “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” requirement for actionable harassment. 

Allegations that Klugman’s posts amount to “threats” are also unfounded. A true threat requires a statement of serious intent to commit unlawful violence. Speech advocating for or endorsing violence is not a true threat, absent more, nor is the use of hyperbolic politized language.

Finally, JHU’s charge that Klugman violated the student code of conduct by engaging in conduct that “adversely affect[s]” the university’s “integrity or mission” is groundless. This provision is incompatible with the free speech principles JHU promises to uphold; such a vague, subjective standard is too easily abused by administrators. Students cannot reasonably know what behavior violates this boundless provision, allowing for selective discipline based on the subjective opinions of administrators.

FIRE continues to call on JHU to honor its strong commitment to freedom of expression by dropping its investigation of Klugman and rescinding any disciplinary action it has taken against him. 

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