This Month in FIRE History: Johns Hopkins Drops Harassment Investigation of Student Journalists

September 25, 2009

September is a notoriously busy time for FIRE. Looking back over the past 10 years, some of our most important cases have either started or concluded as students returned to campus.

Since we just reminded our Red Alert Schools of their unenviable status, I decided to again look at a case from one of those schools. Johns Hopkins University (JHU) has the distinction of having tangled with FIRE three times over the past decade. It goes without saying that this is nothing to be proud of.

In September of 2006, JHU finally dropped its harassment investigation against the conservative student newspaper, The Carrollton Record (TCR). The investigation was prompted by an article criticizing a campus event featuring pornographic film producer Chi Chi LaRue. The cover photo pictured LaRue along with members of JHU’s Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance (DSAGA) student group. Some members of the group, who had hosted the event, were so offended that they filed harassment charges against members of the TCR staff.

To make matters worse, approximately 600 copies of the newspaper that had been distributed to the library the previous day went missing. Further still, TCR was told that it would no longer be allowed to distribute in dorms and that administrators had confiscated 300 copies. Previously, TCR and numerous other publications had regularly been distributed in JHU dorms, and there were even distribution racks specifically designated for this purpose.

After months of pressure from FIRE on both the administration and the Board of Trustees of JHU, the harassment investigation was called off. However, the limitations on TCR‘s distribution rights remain, and the university never resolved the cases of newspaper theft against TCR.

This lack of resolution, coupled with JHU’s absurd treatment of a student for a Facebook event invitation a few months later, has made Johns Hopkins one of the longest-running members of our Red Alert List.

“Freedom of the press and the freedom to distribute literature are vital liberties that should not be denied to JHU students,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said at the time. “Theft and confiscation of a newspaper threaten the very marketplace of ideas upon which a university depends and should be condemned, not accepted.”

JHU’s experience with vigilante censorship is not unique, nor is its administration’s refusal to punish it. In fact, just this year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a student stood on a stack of newspapers to prevent their distribution, then grabbed a pile of papers out of another student’s handswhile a campus police officer stood watching and failed to intervene. FIRE has seen countless examples of newspaper theft on college campuses, leading to the truly frightening conclusion that students really are learning intolerance through the examples their administrations have set.

Schools:  Johns Hopkins University

Cases:  Johns Hopkins University: Viewpoint Discrimination Against Student Newspaper