Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 30, 2024

It’s not a matter of Freedom of Speech

March 28, 2013

JHU Voice for Life (VFL), a group of students which pledges to “defend the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being from conception until natural death,” applied to the Student Government Association (SGA) earlier this month for approval as a University-recognized student group. An offshoot of an earlier student organization founded in 1995, the new group seeks to “help eliminate the root causes of abortion” by engaging in “sidewalk counseling, prayer and protest at clinic[s]” and by displaying “fetal models in [the] Breezeway.” In a majority vote, the SGA denied VFL student group status, citing these activities as potentially offensive and harassing. VFL appealed to the SGA Judiciary Committee, invoking the guarantee of freedom of speech. The Judiciary Committee will hear the case in April and decide whether to uphold the SGA’s denial.

The editorial board feels that this case is not a question of free speech. By refusing to grant the title of student group to VFL, the SGA is not forbidding group members from voicing their opinions. These students are still free to pray and protest at abortion clinics. They are still free to display photos of unborn babies and distribute rubber fetuses to passersby on N. Charles. They are not free, however, to engage in such activities under the sponsorship of the University with funding from the Student Activities Commission.

This case revolves instead around the fundamental duty of the University to protect its students from undue harassment. VFL is not appealing to the Judiciary Committee for the sake of freedom of speech. It is applying, rather, to receive University sponsorship for potentially offensive behavior.

Rubber fetuses and plastered photos of aborted babies on the Breezeway infringe upon the University’s Anti-Harassment Policy, which precludes an activity which is “so severe or pervasive that it interferes with an individual’s work or academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working or academic environment.” Students at a private university on University-owned grounds should not be forced to view images of fetuses on school property.

The University ought always to promote tolerance and acceptance. It need not, however, provide funding and resources to those who wish to promote intolerance in the name of freedom of speech. Were the Judiciary to approve VFL, the group will likely have access to SAC funds and University vans which carry the Hopkins logo and name. The University should not allow its name to be associated with the restriction of abortion rights and harassment of students exercising their legal right to choose. Just as The News-Letter has discretion to deny the publication of articles which some might perceive as offensive, so too does the SGA have discretion to deny groups which will infringe upon the University’s established policies and obligations.

The editorial board commends the SGA for denying group status to VFL and urges the Judiciary Committee to uphold the SGA’s majority vote.

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