Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 29, 2022

FIRE blasts Hopkins for curbing free speech

By SARI AMIEL | January 30, 2014

According to a report issued this month by a nonprofit group focused on civil rights in higher education, Hopkins is not doing enough to safeguard freedom of speech on campus.

The group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), evaluated 323 four-year public institutions, along with 104 of the largest and most prestigious private universities. Of the 427 schools, 250 — including Hopkins — received a “red light” rating, indicating oppressive free speech policies.

According to FIRE, a school labeled as a “red light” violator of freedom of speech “has at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or barring public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access.”

In contrast, only 16 institutions received a “green light” for lacking expression-stifling policies, while 152 schools were given a “yellow light,” for “maintain[ing] policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech” or policies that “restrict only narrow categories of speech.”

The rankings have been widely criticized by officials at universities and colleges across the country.

“I was surprised because I feel Hopkins is pretty accommodating to free speech,” Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education Steven David said. “I know in terms of visitors that we’ve had here...Rick Santorum, a very ultra-conservative guy, was given very respectful treatment here.”

Additionally, Hopkins is one of five institutions on FIRE’s “Red Alert List.” The schools on that list are considered to have “severe and ongoing disregard for the fundamental rights of their students and/or faculty members.”

Many students were puzzled by the fact that Hopkins was ranked among the worst of the worst in terms of freedom of speech policies.

“I would say that that’s surprising,” freshman Adam McCan said. “I’ve never really felt like I’ve had to censor myself.”

While the recent FIRE report described general trends, a 2009 FIRE article titled “The State of Free Speech on Campus: Johns Hopkins University” explained what the group perceived to be the University’s violations in greater depth. In the article, Samantha Harris, FIRE’s director of policy research, mainly objected to the wording of three Hopkins policies.

One of the policies, introduced in 2006 by former President William R. Brody, is known as the “Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect for All.” The rule prohibits “rude, disrespectful behavior” on campus and states that “speech that is ‘tasteless’ or that breaches ‘civility’ will not be tolerated at Hopkins.” Harris viewed that policy language as a restriction on freedom of speech.

Brody introduced the “Principles” after a Hopkins undergraduate was suspended and censured for posting offensive Halloween party invitations on Facebook. Harris characterized Park’s suspension as a “truly draconian punishment.”

However, David maintained that Daniels is dedicated to protecting freedom of expression.

“I do think President Daniels is very much committed to freedom of speech,” David said. “Perhaps his legal background facilitates that.”

The second set of policies that Harris referred to was the University’s Information Technology Use Policies, which prohibit “harassing others by sending annoying, abusive, profane, threatening, defamatory, offensive or unnecessarily repetitive messages.”

However, many universities and colleges in the United States have similar IT policies on the books.

“I think there’s definitely a good reason behind abusive and profane remarks because that can go into the realm of cyberbullying and things like that, but it seems like the word ‘annoying’ is very vague,” McCan said.

University officials also agreed with that point of view.

“If someone sends repetitive, offensive IT messages, [and] especially if they pretend to be someone else, I don’t have a problem saying, ‘Hey, you can’t do that,’” David said.

Finally, Harris cited the University’s Student Technology Services Policies as the third restriction on free speech at Hopkins. Those policies prohibit students from “sending unsolicited e-mail” from University email accounts.

“I send unsolicited emails all the time,” David said. “I’m sending [an] email notifying students about a fellowship opportunity. . .I can’t imagine people object to that.”

Regardless, David said no students have approached him regarding their freedom of speech, and added that he is not sure if the three policies in question are even being enforced.

“If we have to err I would rather err on the side of more free speech than more sensitivity to hurt feelings. . .recognizing that there still are limits,” David said.

McCan, along with junior Brittany Thomas, do not find freedom of speech to be an issue on campus.

“I personally have never felt like my freedom of speech was restricted on campus. . .and I’ve never met anyone who’s complained about that either,” McCan said. “It seems like [FIRE is] taking things out of context.”

Thomas concurred.

“I do believe it’s important to put certain parameters in place for the well-being of all students, but I personally don’t believe that what is implemented in terms of just general university policies have prevented me from expressing myself or from my voice being heard,” Thomas said.

A freedom of speech controversy did erupt at Hopkins last spring, when the Student Government Association (SGA) Senate initially refused to grant Voice for Life (VFL) official status on campus, due to concerns about its policy of sidewalk counseling. The SGA Judiciary overturned the Senate’s decision, giving the group full privileges as an official student organization.

At the time, Caroline Laguerre-Brown, vice provost for institutional equity, said that Voice for Life’s intended activities did not violate university policies, but would rather foster “the values of free expression and open debate that is articulated in [the University’s] policies.”

David highlighted what he characterized as an atmosphere at Hopkins of tolerance for even disfavored opinions.

“I would like a campus whereby students feel comfortable and free to voice unpopular opinions. . .and I haven’t seen evidence that that is not the case here,” David said. “I’m sympathetic with the overall mission of FIRE. I think free speech is extremely important on college campuses, even speech that is offensive to some. The best antidote to offensive speech is more free speech.”

While David agreed with FIRE’s motives, he was more critical of the organization’s methodologies for rating Hopkins.

“[The aforementioned policies] are not compelling constraints on freedom of speech, in my view,” David said. “It would be useful to have a dialogue with FIRE. Someone should talk to FIRE about this and say, ‘you’ve flagged us for violations of freedom of speech. We don’t think that’s accurate.’”

Provost Robert Lieberman agreed.

“Contrary to FIRE’s assertion, Johns Hopkins has a strong and enduring commitment to values of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas, one that stretches to its founding,” he said. “In fact, these values lie at the very heart of the modern research university that Johns Hopkins introduced to the United States.”


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