Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 12, 2024

FIRE calls on Hopkins to better protect students' free speech

By MOLLY GAHAGEN | February 18, 2021



Because Hopkins is a private school, it is not legally bound by the First Amendment. 

This month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) targeted Hopkins as its Speech Code of the Month. FIRE is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting university students’ free speech rights on campus. Every month, the organization selects a specific policy that it believes violates the First Amendment and encourages the respective university to make reforms.

FIRE is specifically targeting the segment of the University’s Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect for All, which reads, “Rude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated.” 

Laura Beltz, senior policy officer at FIRE, explained in an email to The News-Letter why this policy is problematic.

“It may not seem so bad at first to ban ‘rude’ or ‘disrespectful’ behavior, but behavior that an administrator finds rude or disrespectful could include a whole range of expression that is protected under First Amendment standards,” she wrote. “A policy like this — even if it is not applied frequently — could be utilized by an administrator to shut down disfavored speech, so we're hoping to get it revised before it presents that sort of problem.”

The group claims that because the phrasing of policy is imprecise, students are vulnerable to punishment for behavior that administrators subjectively find offensive. FIRE previously targeted this policy in 2006 with no results.

FIRE sent the administration a letter to delineate their concerns and suggestions for how the policy could be revised. The University has not yet responded.

In an email to The News-Letter, however, Vice President of External Relations for the Office of Communications Karen Lancaster reported that the policy is currently under review as part of a larger University project. 

“The University is currently working to adopt a new institution-wide statement on equity and inclusion and is reviewing the Principles as part of that effort,” she wrote. 

Lancaster highlighted the University’s commitment to protecting the right of free expression.

“Hopkins presents guidelines to aid students seeking to engage in protests, demonstrations, vigils, displays or other acts of public expression at the Homewood Campus,” she wrote. “Academic freedom depends on free expression and requires a commitment to maintaining a climate that fuels the discovery and dissemination of ideas through speech, reason and debate.”

Even though Hopkins is a private school and, therefore, is not bound to the First Amendment, Beltz emphasized that it is still important that the University adequately protects free speech.

“[The University] promises students free speech rights in official policies, and students should be able to rely on those promises,” she wrote. “Students should not have to worry that their subjectively rude behavior could land them in trouble, whether they're at a public school bound by the First Amendment or a private school that promises students free speech.”

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