Letter: News-Letter was right two years ago regarding freedom of speech

 Last week, the editorial board of The Johns Hopkins News-Letter claimed that the protest plans of the proposed student group Voice for Life (VFL) are “not a matter of freedom of speech,” arguing that students “should not be forced to view images of fetuses on school property.” The editorial board asserted that allowing this activity would violate JHU’s anti-harassment policy because it is “so severe or pervasive that it … creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working or academic environment.”

 These statements stand in stark contrast to The News-Letter’s thoughtful defense of pro-life protesters on campus less than two years ago. In May 2011, the editorial board wrote that it “supports the presence of opposing viewpoints as they challenge the status quo.” The mode of expressing the message then was no less controversial than it is now; protesters in 2011 “carried posters with graphic signs of aborted fetuses and lynched persons.” Yet the 2011 board implored us to remember: “Sometimes the exercise of one’s liberty is offensive, sometimes it is annoying and sometimes it is a disturbance, but these are not reasons to restrain it.”

 The 2011 board had it right. Unfortunately, today’s News-Letter has demonstrated exactly the phenomenon that FIRE President Greg Lukianoff warned about in his recent book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship & the End of American Debate. University students, who largely used to welcome discomfort as an inevitable side-effect of challenging ideas, now welcome the decision of a small group of leaders to shield students’ eyes.

 I’d like to review three critical points that the current News-Letter board gets wrong:

 First, the idea that free speech is less essential on a private university campus is misguided. Private universities are not legally bound by the First Amendment, as public universities are. But if a private university commits itself to upholding the principles of free speech embodied by the First Amendment, it must keep that promise. Johns Hopkins’ undergraduate student conduct code notes the importance of “protect[ing] the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas.” In addition, JHU’s sexual harassment policy states:

 Fundamental to the University’s purpose is the free and open exchange of ideas. It is not, therefore, the University’s purpose, in promulgating this policy, to inhibit free speech or the free communication of ideas by members of the academic community.

 In other words, JHU has already acknowledged the necessity of properly balancing the right to be free from harassment with the right to free speech, and it claims to favor free speech. The current News-Letter board should recognize that Johns Hopkins has a moral responsibility not to disregard this statement of policy by deciding that some expression is simply too unpopular, or makes some people too uncomfortable, to protect.

 Second, the current board attempts to make a distinction between the school simply allowing free speech and sponsoring certain viewpoints. The board contends that while VFL members “are still free to display photos of unborn babies,” they are not entitled to receive official recognition from the school in order to do so. However, the Supreme Court held in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (2000) and Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995) that when a public university uses student activity fees to fund a multiplicity of independent student groups, each student group retains its status as a private party expressing its personal viewpoint. The same principle holds for private universities like Johns Hopkins, which is obvious if you think about it: How could Johns Hopkins recognize both the College Democrats and the College Republicans if it had to agree with both groups?

Finally, The News-Letter stretches JHU’s harassment policy to include speech that does not rise to the legal standard of student-on-student harassment in education. The Supreme Court held in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999) that speech constitutes unprotected harassment when it is targeted, discriminatory conduct “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” VFL President Andrew Guernsey clarified in speaking with The News-Letter that the organization planned to “speak to women in a peaceful, non-aggressive manner [and] hand out literature.” To call this harassment is to trivialize real harassment. But even if VFL chose to illustrate its point with gruesome images, those images would remain protected speech. Johns Hopkins students are not children; they are adults. And adults in a college setting do not have a broad right not to be confronted with ideas or images that make them uncomfortable—nor should they.


9 Responses to "Letter: News-Letter was right two years ago regarding freedom of speech"

  1. Louis   April 4, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I’m an older man, maybe not in the winter of life but at a minimum deeply into the autumnal season. I suspect that everyone that reads this paper is better educated than I am and quite a few if not most can pen a justification for censorship of uncomfortable ideas. But with that in mind it makes me sad to see how predictably un-rebellious and accepting of the accepted norms kids have become.

  2. Andrew Doris   April 6, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Excellent article with which I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, you said a lot of the same things I would have liked to say in my own Letter to the Editor this week. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit those arguments because I was told letters to the editor are kept to around 250 words, with a hard cap of 300. This one is 736. Not sure why; maybe this is one is for online publication only? Either way, next time I’ll just probably just write a regular OP/ED, where hopefully I’ll have the chance to really flush out a nuanced argument.

    Also, props for mentioning Lukianoff. FIRE does great work.

  3. Jimmy Russel   April 8, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    I largely disagree with the assessment that VFL’s tactics don’t constitute harrassment. Making those who favor abortion out to be murderers by dint of the graphic (some might say obscene) nature of the foetal models and pictures is misleading and treats abortion — a complex issue — with the sensitivity of a jackhammer. The issue has nothing to do with their beliefs: it has everything to do with how they choose to expound upon them.

    Abortion is a complex issue and deserves to be treated as one; advancing the pro-life argument through gore and disgust serves no ostenible purpose to this end.

    • liberT4all   April 14, 2013 at 9:03 pm

      I agree with all of this except the first sentence, which does not follow from the rest.

      Graphic anti-abortion pictures and the like may be offensive. That does not make them harassment. To borrow Ms. Kruth’s elegant phrase, calling these tactics harassment trivializes real harassment.

  4. Sarah   April 8, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    I’m curious what the writer’s thoughts would be if, instead of VFL, it was an animal right’s group protesting with images of gutted animals? Or perhaps approaching students outside of Levering food court and telling them in a “peaceful, non-aggressive manner” that were participating in the mass murder of millions of sentient lives (complete, naturally, with literature and images)? Would you agree that the Hopkins should feel compelled to fund these activities?

    The act of approaching women who are about to undergo a very intimate medical procedure and tell them that what they’re doing is evil borders, to my mind, on the immoral. And I do believe that the University has a right to decline funding for speech that they find to be not merely “unpopular” or “uncomfortable”, but in fact immoral.

    • Alex   April 8, 2013 at 3:55 pm

      I’m not OP, but what’s wrong with an animal right’s group protesting with gutted animals? Do you seriously think we support free speech for pro-lifer groups who may or may not show graphic images, but not animal rights activists?? Try again.

      If you believed something was murder (either abortion or eating meat) wouldn’t you have a moral obligation to do something about it? People have converted to vegetarianism after seeing PETA pictures, just as people have chosen life and become pro-life after seeing aborted baby pictures. It’s effective. Who are you to say these groups can’t do it?

  5. alum11   April 17, 2013 at 12:48 am

    While I tend to agree with the News-Letter’s stance from two years ago (after all, even if JHU is not legally obligated to protect freedom of speech, the moral obligation remains) I think the implication that the paper is being hypocritical is unfair. Student newspapers have large turnovers in their editorial staff from year to year. The people who wrote the editorial two years are not the same people who wrote the current editorial.

  6. alumna   April 18, 2013 at 10:55 am

    So much false logic. “when a public university uses student activity fees to fund a multiplicity of independent student groups, each student group retains its status as a private party expressing its personal viewpoint”

    Right, so sponsorship does not equal agreement, and does not equal the official adoption of the group’s viewpoint by the university. But sponsorship and funding are still sponsorship and funding, and not required for free speech. That still makes it sponsored speech, and paid-for speech, and recognized speech. Hopkins should not sponsor and recognize lies and harassment.

    • Louis   April 20, 2013 at 2:54 pm

      All lies and harassment or just the ones you dislike? Who decides?


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