Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 21, 2022

Md. bill may protect free speech of students

By Peter Sicher | February 24, 2010

The Maryland State Legislature is considering a bill that would allow students at private colleges and universities, with state funding, to sue their school if free speech rights are violated.

Students at Hopkins, which is amongst the Maryland schools affected, could sue the school if this proposal becomes a law.

While the University does not have a formal position on the bill, Hopkins is a member of the Maryland Independent Colleges and Universities Association (MICUA), which is opposed to the legislation.

According to MICUA testimony, "This bill grants every student attending a Maryland independent college the right to harangue on any issue anywhere on campus as long as the student has the constitutional right to make a similar speech on a street corner . . . Students could interrupt lectures and suffocate opposing views," officials from MICUA wrote in testimony presented to House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. 

The bill was proposed by Hopkins graduate and Republican Delegate Christopher Shank after he was contacted by Hopkins student and Student Government Association (SGA) Vice President Evan Lazerowitz.

Shank felt that MICUA's concerns were not valid. 

"You don't see anything like that at the public institutions. I disagree that anything in this bill would affect the classroom situation of orderly classroom management," he said.

Lazerowitz was one of four students from Hopkins and Loyola who also testified before the Senate in support of the bill.

"I don't view free speech as a partisan issue...It's not a partisan piece of legislation it is a policy piece of legislation. California has basically the same law," said Lazerowitz, who also serves as head of Hopkins Republicans

By targeting private universities that receive public funding, Lazerowitz believed the bill would have more success.

"The state gives funding to pretty much all the private universities in [Maryland]. I think that there are some constitutional issues with telling a university they have to do so. It would garner more support if universities can opt to drop out. They just couldn't accept money from tax payers," he said.

Lazerowitz feels that Hopkins Civility Code has a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression.

The Civility Code states that "Rude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated," and "Every member of our community will be held accountable for creating a welcoming workplace for all."

"You could take any controversial political opinion and say it was rude to someone or disrespectful and punish them," Lazerowitz said. 

During his time at Hopkins, Shank said he did not feel that First Amendment rights were restricted. He was upset to learn, however, that some students felt their right to free speech was being infringed upon. 

"I am quite troubled by what I've heard in recent years, cropping up not only at Hopkins but throughout the academic community. As a Hopkins alumni and a member of the greater academic community I find this deeply troubling," he said.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has placed Hopkins on a list of universities with serious free speech problem. 

FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy William Creeley felt that the university is one of the worst in the country at "protecting individual rights, including freedom of expression on campus."

Hopkins was placed on the Red Alert List after two incidents in 2006. In the first incident, several hundred copies of The Carrolton Record, a conservative student paper, were removed around campus after it published an article in which it criticized members of the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance and used their pictures on the front page without obtaining their permission. The University began a harassment investigation into the newspaper, which was later dropped.

Later that year, Hopkins student Justin Park was suspended after creating a Facebook event invitation to a "Halloween in the Hood Party" that the University believed was racially insensitive. Park was suspended from Hopkins.

Dean of Student Life Susan Boswell defended the University's policies, denying that the Civility Code constituted a speech code. 

"The principles do not regulate student expression. They reflect the kind of environment in which we think debate and discussion are most productive," she wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

"The university believes strongly in academic freedom. We believe in the importance of discussion and debate and the examination of ideas. Ideas are, after all, what universities are about. So we encourage that discussion. We also try to encourage everyone to take part in that discussion in a spirit of civility and collegiality."

According to University spokesperson Dennis O'Shea, while MICUA has taken a position on the bill, Hopkins as an individual institution has not. 

While he refused to comment on the Justin Park incident, O'Shea said that the controversy surrounding the removal of The Carrolton Record was due to miscommunication over distributing their issues in residence halls.

"There was never any question that the Carrollton Record had the right to publish what it did and to distribute it on campus. The Carrollton Record was, in fact, distributed in other campus locations and, as a result of the issue being raised, distribution procedures were clarified," he wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

However, The News-Letter reported in 2006 that Dean of Residential Life Shelly Fickau told Record staff that "it was under her jurisdiction to remove certain speech she deems controversial" from the dormitories.

Two years ago, the SGA passed a bill asking the University to take action on free speech issues. According to Lazerowitz, nothing came of that.

Last week the SGA passed another resolution, asking the University to support Shank's bill.

"At all 19 independent colleges in Maryland the Presidents are opposed to the bill, which I think is very sad. It shows a callous disregard for student rights," Lazerowitz said. 

Both Shank and Lazerowitz are unsure whether or not the bill will pass.

"I don't think the bill will pass the house. It has a good chance in the senate," Lazerowitz said.

But even if the bill does not pass, Lazerowitz believed that the University will be forced to examine its free speech policies.



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