Red Alert at Johns Hopkins: No ‘Rude’ or ‘Disrespectful’ Expression Allowed

September 8, 2010

Since announcing our full-page advertisement in U.S. News & World Report‘s college rankings issue last week, in which we publicly shame the six colleges and universities that comprise FIRE’s Red Alert list, we have been going through the schools one by one on The Torch to review why they are on our Red Alert list and what they must do to get off of the list. FIRE’s Red Alert list is reserved for those institutions that are the “worst of the worst” in the nation when it comes to freedom of speech on campus. The Red Alert list consists of Bucknell University, Brandeis University, Colorado College, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Tufts University; at these institutions, as we warn prospective students and their parents in our advertisement, it is dangerous for students to express themselves due to the likelihood of censorship or punishment.

Last week, we covered why Michigan State, Tufts, and Bucknell are on the list, and we described what they must do to put themselves back in FIRE’s good graces. Today, we take a look at Johns Hopkins University.

Johns Hopkins earned its place on our Red Alert list with its egregious treatment of student Justin Park for posting a Halloween party invitation on Facebook that some found offensive. Hopkins astonishingly suspended Park for an entire year in 2006 after he was charged with and found guilty of “harassment,” “intimidation,” and “failing to respect the rights of others.” All of these charges stemmed from an advertisement Park had posted for his fraternity’s “Halloween in the Hood” party. Park even had removed the original advertisement for the party at Hopkins Director of Greek Affairs Robert Turning’s request after some students found it offensive; after receiving inquiries into whether the party would still take place, Park posted a different advertisement and his fraternity hosted the party. Several days later, Park received a letter from Associate Dean of Students Dorothy Sheppard stating that the two Facebook advertisements “contained offensive racial stereotyping” and that “there were offensive decorations at the party.”

Hopkins’ original punishment of Park, in addition to suspension from the university for a year, included completion of 300 hours of community service; an assignment to read twelve books and to write a reflection paper on each; and mandatory attendance at a workshop on diversity and race relations. There is no need for me to add anything here—just take another look at that list of requirements. Amazingly, it took public pressure from FIRE and others before these massive requirements were reduced.

In writing to Hopkins President William Brody about the Justin Park case, we made the point that Hopkins’ actions were inconsistent with the statement in its Undergraduate Student Conduct Code that students must “protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas.” In a response, Hopkins informed us that the university values things such as “mutual respect” over free speech. While Hopkins as a private university is free to set its own course when it comes to free speech, it certainly cannot have it both ways: hold itself out as an institution committed to free speech and student dialogue, and at the same time treat cases such as Park’s with such disregard for students’ expressive rights.

Yet a look at Hopkins’ most recent Student Handbook reveals that it continues to advertise itself as in the “marketplace of ideas” mold. The provision from the Undergraduate Student Conduct Code about “protect[ing] the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas” remains in place. In addition, Hopkins’ policy on “Sexual Harassment and Assault” states:

Fundamental to the University’s purpose is the free and open exchange of ideas.

Seems like that should be pretty open-and-shut, right? Yet, the university somehow saw fit during the Park ordeal to revise its “Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect for All” to make them even more restrictive of speech. Those Principles now state, in relevant part:

The Johns Hopkins University is an environment in which all people behave in a manner that engenders mutual respect, treating each other with courtesy and civility regardless of position or status in the academy. Rude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated.

Our community is one where we demonstrate respect for each other; we accept our individual differences; and we provide opportunities for everyone to maximize his or her potential. Every member of our community will be held accountable for creating a welcoming workplace for all. [Boldface and italics in original.]

That’s a staggeringly bad speech code and, along with a separate Hopkins policy, it gives the university a well-deserved red-light rating in our Spotlight database. Does the Hopkins administration really seek to suppress all “[r]ude” and “disrespectful” speech on its campus? And if not, given the near impossibility of this task, does it intend to enforce the policy selectively and at a whim, thereby guaranteeing viewpoint discrimination? For good measure, perhaps just to make clear that the policy is no accident, President Brody wrote in a December 2006 article in The JHU Gazette that speech that is “tasteless” or that breaches standards of “civility” will not be tolerated at Hopkins.

So what light is there at the end of the tunnel for students at Hopkins, and how can the university get off of our Red Alert list? Students can find hope in the fact that William Brody is no longer the president at Hopkins. Last year, Ronald Daniels, formerly provost at the University of Pennsylvania, took over as president one year ago, and Daniels has an opportunity to send a strong message to the Hopkins community by getting Hopkins removed from our Red Alert list. Having come to Hopkins from a green-light institution, one of the very few in our Spotlight database, Daniels should know better than most that it is in fact possible for a private university to craft policies that respect free speech. As he said in his installation address one year ago today:

While others have only recently awakened to the wrenching disparities of health, education, civil and political liberties that mark the developed from the developing world, our university has long understood these challenges, and has worked tirelessly and imaginatively to address them throughout the world.

There is still so much more to do.

Indeed, there is much to do right in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins. To get off of FIRE’s Red Alert list, Hopkins must either rescind its speech code banning “[r]ude” and “disrespectful” expression, or at least make it perfectly clear that this provision has no force as a rule and will never be used to punish protected speech. Otherwise, even some of the tamest and most innocuous student expression at Johns Hopkins could be another Justin Park case waiting to happen—and the policy, even absent enforcement, will continue to place a chilling effect on campus dialogue by its very existence. I hope that Daniels will act to repeal the code and erase some of the stains left by his predecessor, thus creating a better legacy for himself.

Schools:  Johns Hopkins University