On October 26, Johns Hopkins University student Justin Park posted a politically incorrect flyer on the popular social-networking site Facebook.com. Today Park finds himself at the center of a brewing controversy that pits parody against a university regime bent on stamping out discourteous expression -- even if it means trampling on students’ rights.
Park's flyer promoted an upcoming Halloween party held at his off-campus fraternity under the theme “Halloween in the Hood.” Inspired by the so-called "Pimps and Hoes Party," a popular event you can find on virtually any major campus, the flyer used provocative "gangsta" talk to describe the planned festivities. The flyer even featured a goofy picture of Senator Hillary Clinton giving a thumbs-up. Despite complaints from the overly sensitive Black Student Union, the Halloween party occurred as planned. Park’s troubles, however, were just beginning.
Less than a week later, Associate Dean Dorothy Sheppard notified Park in a letter that he may have violated several ill-defined campus policies, including harassment and “failing to respect the rights of others,” and that a disciplinary hearing would commence. The outcome of the hearing was never in doubt. For Sheppard had already determined that Park’s flyers “contained offensive racial stereotyping.”
Not surprisingly, Park was found guilty by the University’s Student Conduct Board of all the above charges as well as several new ones: They also ruled that his flyers had caused the “intimidation” of a student that resulted “in limiting his/her access to all aspects of life at the university.”
More shocking than the verdict was the severity of the punishment. Not only would Park have to attend a workshop on "race relations"; not only would he have to read 12 university-chosen books and write reflection papers on each; not only would he have to complete 300 hours of approved community service; but Park has to pack his things and get off campus. He has been suspended for one year.
Well before the verdict, Park solicited the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-partisan, non-profit dedicated to defending the civil liberties of college students. They quickly wrote to JHU President William Brody protesting the school’s actions. Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, reminded JHU that they are “morally and contractually bound” to protect their students free speech rights, and called JHU’s speech codes “laughably unconstitutional.” FIRE awaits a response while, according to the Baltimore Examiner, Park appeals the decision.
It’s important to note that Facebook.com and similar sites are not run by any college administration nor are any of their servers hosted on any campus. These sites are operated by private companies that provide a free, ad-supported service to their users. Of course, administrators can’t force Facebook.com and other sites to disallow certain speech. Unlike Universities, many social-networking sites have loose rules when it comes to censorship, since site owners tend to understand the virtues of the First Amendment. So what do universities do to curb “offensive” speech online? They make their own campus conduct policies apply to students in their private lives.
Indeed, Park’s case is not an anomaly. A religious, conservative school in Kentucky, the University of Cumberlands, expelled a student for admitting his homosexuality on the popular site MySpace. At Kent State in Ohio, student athletes were once barred from even creating Facebook.com profiles over concerns their students might violate their “code of expected behavior.”
At Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University, student Ryan Miner was found guilty of discrimination based on sexual orientation, for a post he made on a Facebook blog. In the post, Miner called homosexuals “subhuman.” According to the Student Press Law Center, Miner’s punishment was to write a 10-page essay on “the pros and cons of homosexuality.” Ironically, most universities would probably argue that the very suggestion that there are any “cons” associated with homosexuality runs counter to their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
Similarly, four freshmen students were disciplined and threatened with expulsion by Syracuse University in New York, after creating a Facebook group critical of one of their professors. Some of the comments that angered Syracuse included “I’d rather eat all the hair stuck in the drain of the showers than go to class” and some other more colorful and grotesque. Immature as the comments may be, the students were still disciplined for something they wrote in their private lives on a site that is unaffiliated with the school. Nevertheless, Syracuse defended its actions, issuing the following statement: “At Syracuse University, Facebook.com is no different from other means of communication that can be deemed harassing or threatening.”